"My horse—my horse!" shouted Nigel Bruce, as he sprung from rank to rank of the little phalanx, urging, commanding, entreating them to make one last stand, and fall as befitted Scottish patriots. The keep and inner ballium was still their own as a place of retreat, however short a period it might remain so. A brave defence, a glorious death would still do much for Scotland.
Shouts, cheers, blessings on his name awoke in answer, as unfalteringly, as bravely as those of the advancing foes. Prancing, neighing, rearing, the superb charger was at length brought to the dauntless leader.
"Not thus, my lord; in heaven's name, do not mount thus, unarmed, bareheaded as thou art!" exclaimed several voices, and two or three of his esquires crowded round him. "Retire but for a brief space within the church."
"And turn my back upon my foes, Hubert; not for worlds! No, no; bring me the greaves, gauntlets, and helmet here, if thou wilt, and an they give me time, I will arm me in their very teeth. Haste ye, my friends, if ye will have it so; for myself these garments would serve me well enough;" but ere he ceased to speak they had flown to obey, and returned ere a dozen more of the English had made their way across the crumbling wall. Coolly, composedly, Nigel threw aside his mantle and doublet, and permitted his esquires to assist in arming him, speaking at the same time in a tone so utterly unconcerned, that ere their task was finished, his coolness had extended unto them. He had allowed some few of the English to make an unmolested way; his own men were drawn up in close lines against the inner wall, so deep in shadow that they were at first unobserved by the English. He could perceive by the still, clear light of the flames, troop after troop of the besiegers were marching forward in the direction both of the causeway and the river; several were plunging in the moat, sword in hand, and attack threatened on every side. He waited no longer; springing on his charger, with a movement so sudden and unexpected, the helmet fell from his esquire's hand, and waving his sword above his undefended head, he shouted aloud his war-cry, and dashed on, followed by his men, to the spot where a large body of his foes already stood.
Desperately they struggled, most gallantly they fought; man after man of the English fell before them. On, on they struggled; a path seemed cleared before them; the English were bearing back, despite their continued reinforcements from the troops, that so thronged the causeway it appeared but one mass of men. But other shouts rent the air. The besiegers now poured in on every side; wherever that gallant body turned they were met by English. On, on they came, fresh from some hours of repose, buoyed up by the certainty of conquest; unnumbered swords and spears, and coats of mail, gleaming in that lurid light; on came the fiery steeds, urged by the spur and rein, till through the very flames they bore their masters; on through the waters of the moat, up the scorching ruins, and with a sound as of thunder, clearing with a single bound all obstacles into the very court. It was a fearful sight; that little patriot band, hemmed in on every side, yet struggling to the last, clearing a free passage through men and horse, and glancing swords and closing multitudes, nearing the church, slowly, yet surely, forming in yet closer order as they advanced; there, there they stood, as a single bark amid the troubled waves, cleaving them asunder, but to close again in fatal fury on her track.
In vain, amid that furious strife, did the Earl of Lancaster seek out the azure plume and golden helmet that marked the foe he still desired to meet; there was indeed a face, beautiful and glorious even in that moment, ever in the very thickest of the fight, alike the front, the centre, the rear-guard of his men; there was indeed that stately form, sitting his noble charger as if horse and man were one; and that unhelmed brow, that beautifully formed head, with its long curls streaming in the night wind, which towered unharmed, unbent, above his foes; and where that was, the last hope of his country had gathered. The open door of the church was gained, and there the Scottish patriots made a stand, defended in their rear by the building. A brief and desperate struggle partially cleared their foes, and ere those in the rear could press forward, the besieged had disappeared, and the heavy doors were closed. The sudden pause of astonishment amidst the assailants was speedily dispelled by the heavy blows of axes and hatchets, the sudden shout "To the wall! to the wall!" while several ran to plant scaling-ladders and mount the inner barrier, left unhappily unguarded from the diminished numbers of the Scotch; there, however, their progress was impeded, for the space which that wall inclosed being scarce half the size of the ballium, and the barrier itself uninjured, they were repulsed with loss from within. The church-doors meanwhile had given way, and permitted ingress to the assailants, but the door leading to the passage through the inner wall, and by which in reality the Scotch had effected their retreat, was carefully closed and barred within, and had so completely the same appearance as the wall of the church in which it stood, that the English gazed round them fairly puzzled and amazed.
This movement, however, on the part of the besieged occasioned a brief cessation of hostilities on both sides. The flames had subsided, except here and there, where the passing wind fanned the red-hot embers anew into life, and caused a flickering radiance to pass athwart the pitchy darkness of the night, and over the bustling scene on either side the ruins.
There was no moon, and Hereford imagined the hours of darkness might be better employed in active measures for resuming the attack by dawn than continuing it then. Much, very much had been gained: a very brief struggle more he knew must now decide it, and he hoped, though against his better judgment, that the garrison, would surrender without further loss of blood. Terms he could not propose, none at least that could prevail on the brave commanders to give up with life, and so great was the admiration Nigel's conduct had occasioned, that this true son of chivalry ardently wished he would eventually fall in combat rather than be consigned to the fearful fate which he knew would be inflicted on him by the commands of Edward. Commands to the troops without were forwarded by trusty esquires; the wounded conveyed to the camp, and their places supplied by fresh forces, who, with the joyous sound of trumpet and drum, marched over by torchlight into the ballium, so long the coveted object of their attack.
Sir Nigel meanwhile had desired his exhausted men to lie down in their arms, ready to start up at the faintest appearance of renewed hostility, and utterly worn out, they most willingly obeyed. But the young knight himself neither shared nor sought for that repose; he stood against a buttress on the walls, leaning on a tall spear, and gazing at once upon his wearied followers, and keeping a strict watch on the movements of his foes. A tall form, clothed in complete armor, suddenly stood beside him; he started.
"Seaton!" he said; "thou here, and in armor?"
"Aye," answered the knight, his voice from very weakness sounding hollow in his helmet. "Aye, to make one last stand, and, if it may be, die as I have lived for Scotland. I have strength to strike one last blow, for last it will be—all is lost!"
A low groan broke from Nigel's lips, but he made no further answer than the utterance of one word—"Agnes!"
"Is safe, I trust," rejoined the knight. "The son of Dermid, in whose arms I last saw her, knoweth many a secret path and hidden passage, and can make his way wherever his will may lead."
"How! thinkest thou he will preserve her, save her even now from the foe?"
"Aye, perchance conceal her till the castle be dismantled. But what do they now? See, a herald and white flag," he added, abruptly, as by the light of several torches a trumpeter, banner-bearer, herald, and five men-at-arms were discerned approaching the walls.
"What would ye? Halt, and answer," demanded Sir Nigel, recalled on the instant to his sterner duties, and advancing, spear in hand, to the utmost verge of the wall.
"We demand speech of Sir Nigel Bruce and Sir Christopher Seaton, governors of this castle," was the brief reply.
"Speak on, then, we are before ye, ready to list your say. What would your lords?"
"Give ye not admittance within the wall?" inquired the herald; "'tis somewhat strange parleying without."
"No!" answered Nigel, briefly and sternly; "speak on, and quickly. We doubt not the honor of the noble Earl of Hereford—it hath been too gloriously proved; but we are here to list your mission. What would ye?"
"That ye surrender this fortress by to-morrow's dawn, and strive no longer with the destiny against you. Ye have neither men nor stores, and in all good and chivalric feeling, the noble Earls of Hereford and Lancaster call on ye to surrender without further loss of blood."
"And if we do this?" demanded Nigel.
"They promise all honorable treatment and lenient captivity to the leaders of the rebels, until the pleasure of his grace the king be known; protection to all females; liberty to those whose rank demands not their detention; and for the common soldiers, on the delivery of their arms and upper garments, and their taking a solemn oath that within seven days they will leave Scotland never to return, liberty and life shall be mercifully extended unto one and all."
"And if we do not this?"
"Your blood be upon your own rebellious heads! Sacking and pillage must take their course."
"Ye have heard," were the sole words that passed the lips of Nigel, turning to his men, who, roused by the first sound of the trumpet, had started from their slumbers, and falling in a semicircle round him and Sir Christopher, listened with intense eagerness to the herald's words. "Ye have heard. Speak, then—your answer; yours shall be ours."
"Death! death! death!" was the universally reiterated shout. "We will struggle to the death. Our king and country shall not say we deserted them because we feared to die; or surrendered on terms of shame as these! No; let the foe come on! we will die, if we may not live, still patriots of Scotland! King Robert will avenge us! God save the Bruce!"
Again, and yet again they bade God bless him; and startlingly and thrillingly was the united voice of that desperate, devoted band borne on the wings of night to the very furthest tents of their foes. Calmly Sir Nigel turned again to the herald.
"Thou hast Scotland's answer," he said; "'tis in such men as these her glorious spirit lives! they will fall not unavenged. Commend us to your masters; we await them with the dawn," and, turning on his heel, he reassumed the posture of thought as if he had never been aroused.
The dawn uprose, the attack was renewed with increased vigor, and defended with the same calm, determined spirit which had been ever shown; the patriots fell where they fought, leaving fearful traces of their desperate courage in the numbers of English that surrounded each. It was now before the principal entrance to the keep they made their final stand, and horrible was the loss of life, fierce and deadly the strife, ere that entrance was forced, and the shrieks of women and children within proclaimed the triumph of the foe. Then came a shout, loud ringing, joyous, echoed and re-echoed by the blast of the trumpets both within and without, and the proud banner of Scotland was hurled contemptuously to the earth, and the flag of England floated in its place. Many a dying eye, unclosed by those sudden sounds, looked on that emblem of defeat and moved not in life again; others sprung up to their feet with wild shrieks of defiance, and fell back, powerless, in death.
Sir Christopher Seaton, whose exhausted frame could barely sustain the weight of his armor, had been taken in the first charge, fighting bravely, but falling from exhaustion to the earth. And where was Nigel?—hemmed in on all sides, yet seemingly unwounded, unconquered still, his face indeed was deadly pale, and there were moments when his strokes flagged as from an utter failing of strength; but if, on observing this, his foes pressed closer, strength appeared to return, and still, still he struggled on. He sought for death; he felt that he dared his destiny, but death shunned him; he strove with his destiny in vain. Not thus might he fall, the young, the generous, the gifted. On foot, his armor hacked and stained with blood, not yet had the word "yield" been shouted in his ear.
"Back, back! leave me this glorious prize!" shouted Lancaster, spurring on his charger through the crowd, and leaping from him the instant he neared the spot where Nigel stood. "Take heed of my gallant horse, I need him not—I shall not need him now. Ha! bareheaded too; well, so shall it be with me—hand to hand, foot to foot. Turn, noble Nigel, we are well-nigh equals now, and none shall come between us." He hastily unclasped his helmet, threw it from his brow, and stood in the attitude of defence.
One moment Sir Nigel paused; his closing foes had fallen from him at the words of their leader; he hesitated one brief instant as to whether indeed he should struggle more, or deliver up his sword to the generous earl, when the shout of triumph from the topmost turret, proclaiming the raising of the banner, fell upon his ear, and nerved him to the onset.
"Noble and generous!" he exclaimed, as their swords crossed. "Might I choose my fate, I would fall by thy knightly sword."
As stupefied with wonder at the skill, the extraordinary velocity and power of the combatants, the men-at-arms stood round, without making one movement to leave the spot; and fearful indeed was that deadly strife; equal they seemed in stature, in the use of their weapons, in every mystery of the sword; the eye ached with the rapid flashing of the blades, the ear tired of the sharp, unwavering clash, but still they quailed not, moved not from the spot where the combat had commenced.
How long this fearful struggle would have continued, or who would finally be victor, was undecided still, when suddenly the wild mocking laugh of madness sounded in the very ear of Nigel, and a voice shouted aloud, "Fight on, my bonny lord; see, see, how I care for your winsome bride," and the maniac form of Jean Roy rushed by through the thickest ranks of the men, swift, swift as the lightning track. A veil of silver tissue floated from her shoulder, and she seemed to be bearing something in her arms, but what, the rapidity of her way precluded all discovery. The fierce soldiers shrunk away from her, as if appalled by her gaunt, spectral look, or too much scared by her sudden appearance to attempt detaining her. The eye of Nigel involuntarily turned from his foe to follow her; he recognized the veil, and fancy did the rest. He saw her near a part of the wall which was tottering beneath the engines of the English; there was a wild shriek in other tones than hers, the wall fell, burying the maniac in its ruins. A mist came over the senses of the young knight, strength suddenly fled his arm, he stepped back as to recover himself, but slipped and fell, the violence of the fall dashing his sword many yards in air. "I yield me true prisoner, rescue or no rescue," he said, in a tone so startling in its agony that the rudest heart beside him shrunk within itself appalled, and for a minute Lancaster checked the words upon his lips.
"Nay, nay, yield not in such tone, my gallant foe!" he said, with eager courtesy, and with his own hand aiding him to rise. "Would that I were the majesty of England, I should deem myself debased did I hold such gallantry in durance. Of a truth, thou hast robbed me of my conquest, fair sir, for it was no skill of mine which brought thee to the ground. I may thank that shrieking mad woman, perchance, for the preservation of my laurels."
"I give you thanks for your courtesy, my lord," replied Sir Nigel, striving to recover himself; "but I pray you pardon me, if I beseech you let that falling mass be cleared at once, and note if that unhappy woman breathes. Methought," he added, in stronger agitation, "she carried something in her arms."
"She did," answered many voices; "some child or girl, who was struggling, though the head was muffled up as if to prevent all sounds."
"See to it, and bring us news of what you find," said Lancaster, hastily, for the same ghastly expression passed over the countenance of his prisoner as had startled him at first. "Thou art not well, my good lord?" he continued kindly.
"Nay, I am well, my lord; but I will go with you," replied the young knight, slowly, as if collecting strength ere he could speak. "I am wearied with the turmoil of the last twelve hours' fighting against fire and sword at once; I would fain see the noble Hereford, and with his permission rest me a brief while."
Lancaster made no further comment, and the two knights, who but a few minutes before had been engaged in deadly strife, now made their way together through the heaps of the dying and the dead, through many a group of rude soldiery, who scowled on Nigel with no friendly eye, for they only recognized him as the destroyer of hundreds of their countrymen, not the chivalric champion who had won the enthusiastic admiration of their leaders, and soon found themselves in the castle-hall, in the presence of the Earl of Hereford, who was surrounded by his noblest officers, Sir Christopher and Lady Seaton, and some few other Scottish prisoners, most of whom were badly wounded. He advanced to meet Sir Nigel, courteously, though gravely.
"It grieves me," he said, "to receive as a prisoner a knight of such high renown and such chivalric bearing as Sir Nigel Bruce; I would he had kept those rare qualities for the sovereign to whom they were naturally due, and who would have known how to have appreciated and honor them, rather than shed such lustre on so weak a cause."
"Does your lordship regard the freedom of an oppressed country so weak a cause?" replied Nigel, the hot blood mounting to his cheek; "the rising in defence of a rightful king, in lieu of slavishly adhering to one, who, though so powerful, all good men, aye, even all good Englishmen, must look on, in his claims to Scotland, as an ambitious usurper. My lord, my lord, the spirit of Hereford spoke not in those words; but I forgive them, for I have much for which to proffer thanks unto the noble Hereford, much, that his knightly soul scorned treachery and gave us a fair field. Durance is but a melancholy prospect, yet an it must be I would not nobler captors."
"Nor would I forfeit the esteem in which you hold me, gallant sir," replied the earl, "and therefore do I pray you, command my services in aught that can pleasure you, and an it interfere not with my duty to my sovereign, I shall be proud to give them. Speak, I pray you."
"Nay, I can ask naught which the Earl of Hereford hath not granted of himself," said Sir Nigel. "I would beseech you to extend protection to all the females of this unhappy castle; to part not my sister from her lord, for, as you see, his wounds and weakness call for woman's care; to grant the leech's aid to those who need it; and if there be some unhappy men of my faithful troop remaining, I would beseech you show mercy unto them, and let them go free—they can work no further ill to Edward; they can fight no more for Scotland, for she lieth chained; they have no head and therefore no means of resistance—I beseech you give them freedom unshackled by conditions."
"It shall be, it shall be," replied Hereford, hastily, and evidently moved; "but for thyself, young sir, thyself, can we do naught for thee?"
"Nothing," answered the young man, calmly. "I need little more on earth, for neither my youth, my birth, nor what it pleaseth thee to term my gallantry, will save me from the sweeping axe of Edward. I would beseech thee to let my death atone for all, and redeem my noble friends; but I ask it not, for I know in this thou hast no power; and yet, though I ask nothing now," he added, after a brief pause, and in a lower voice, as to be heard only by Hereford, "ere we march to England I may have a boon to crave—protection, liberty for a beloved one, whose fate as yet I know not." He spoke almost inarticulately, for again it seemed the horrid words and maniac laugh of Jean Roy resounded in his ears. There was that in the look and manner of the English earl inviting confidence: a moment the tortured young man longed to pour all into his ear, to conjure him to find Agnes, and give her to his arms; the next he refrained, for her words, "Ask not how I will contrive to abide by thee undiscovered by the foe," suddenly flashed on his memory, with the conviction that if she were indeed still in life, and he acknowledged her his wife, Hereford would feel himself compelled to keep her under restraint, as he did Lady Seaton and the wives of other noble Scotsmen. His lip trembled, but fortunately for the preservation of his composure, Hereford's attention was called from him by the eager entrance of several other officers, who all crowded round him, alike in congratulation, and waiting his commands, and perceiving he was agitated, the earl turned from him with a courteous bow. Eagerly he seized that moment to spring to the side of his sister, to whisper the impatient inquiry, "Agnes, where is Agnes?" To feel his heart a moment throb high, and then sink again by her reply, that she had not seen her since he had placed her in the arms of the seer; that in the fearful confusion which followed, she had looked for her in vain, examined all her accustomed haunts, but discovered no traces of her, save the silver tissue veil. There was, however, some hope in that; Jean Roy, misled by the glittering article, and seeing it perchance in the hands of another, might have been deceived in her prey. Nay, he welcomed the uncertainty of suspense; there was something so fearful, so horrible in the idea that his own faithful Agnes was among those blackened and mangled bodies, which Lancaster informed him had been discovered beneath the ruins, something so sickening, so revolting, he could not take advantage of the earl's offer to examine them himself, though, Lancaster added, it would not be of much use, for he challenged their dearest friends to recognize them. He could not believe such was her fate. Dermid had not been seen since the fatal conclusion of their marriage; he knew his fidelity, his interest in both Agnes and himself, and he could not, he would not believe the maniac had decoyed her from his care. But where was she?—where, in such a moment, could he have conveyed her?—what would be her final fate?—how would she rejoin him? were questions ever thronging on his heart and brain, struggling with doubts, with the horrible suspicion still clinging to that shriek which had sounded as the ruins fell. Darker and more forebodingly oppressive grew these conflicting thoughts, as day after day passed, and still she came not, nor were there any tidings of the seer.
A very brief interval sufficed for the English earls to conclude their arrangements at Kildrummie, and prepare to march southward, Berwick being the frontier town to which the Scottish prisoners were usually conveyed. Their loss had been greater than at any other similar siege; more than a third of their large army had fallen, several others were wounded, and not much above a third remained who were fitted to continue in arms. It was a fearful proof of the desperate valor of the besieged, but both earls felt it would so exasperate their sovereign against the Scottish commanders, as to remove the slightest hope of mercy. The ruins were with some labor cleared away, the remains of the outer wall levelled with the earth, except the tower communicating with the drawbridge and barbacan, which could be easily repaired. The inner wall Hereford likewise commanded to be restored; the keep he turned into a hospital for the wounded, leaving with them a sufficient garrison to defend the castle, in case of renewed incursions of the Scottish patriots, a case, in the present state of the country, not very probable. True to his promise, these men-at-arms who survived, and whose wounds permitted their removal, Hereford set at liberty, not above ten in number; dispirited, heart-broken, he felt indeed there was no need to impose conditions on them. Those of the traitors who remained, endeavored by cringing humility, to gain the favor of the English; but finding themselves shunned and despised, for the commonest English soldier was of a nature too noble to bear with aught of treachery, they dispersed over the country, finding little in its miserable condition to impart enjoyment to the lives they had enacted so base a part to preserve. It may be well to state, ere we entirely leave the subject, that the execution of Evan Roy exciting every evil passion in their already rebellious hearts, had determined them to conspire for a signal revenge, the ravings of Jean Roy and the desperate counsels of her mother-in-law urging them to the catastrophe we have related; the murder of Nigel had been first planned, but dismissed as likely to be discovered and thwarted, and bring vengeance on their own heads instead of his. Before the execution of their comrade and head of the conspiracy, they had only been desirous of shunning the horrors of a prolonged siege; but afterwards, revenge became stronger than mere personal safety, and therefore was it they refused to take advantage of the safe conduct demanded by Nigel, and granted, as we have said.
The Scottish prisoners were removed from the castle a few hours after its capitulation, and placed in honorable restraint, in separate pavilions. Lancaster, whose romantic admiration for his antagonist had not been in the least diminished by Sir Nigel's bearing in captivity and the lofty tone of the young knight's society and conversation, which he frequently courted, absolutely made him shrink from heading the force which was to conduct him a prisoner to England, for he well knew those very qualities, calling forth every spark of chivalry in his own bosom, would be only so many incitements to Edward for his instant execution. He therefore demanded that the superintending the works of the garrison and keeping a strict watch upon the movements of the adjoining country should devolve on him, and Hereford, as the older and wiser, should conduct his prisoners to the border, and report the events of the siege to his sovereign. His colleague acceded, and the eighth day from the triumph of the besiegers was fixed on to commence their march.
It was on the evening of the seventh day that the Earl of Hereford, then engaged in earnest council with Lancaster, on subjects relating to their military charge, was informed that an old man and a boy so earnestly entreated speech with him, that they had even moved the iron heart of Hugo de l'Orme, the earl's esquire, who himself craved audience for them.
"They must bear some marvellous charm about them, an they have worked upon thee, De l'Orme," said his master, smiling. "In good sooth, let them enter."
Yet there was nothing very striking in their appearance when they came. The old man indeed was of a tall, almost majestic figure, and it was only the snowy whiteness of his hair and flowing beard that betrayed his age, for his eye was still bright, his form unbent. He was attired as a minstrel, his viol slung across his breast, a garb which obtained for its possessor free entrance alike into camp and castle, hall and bower, to all parties, to all lands, friendly or hostile, as it might be. His companion was a slight boy, seemingly little more than thirteen or fourteen, with small, exquisitely delicate features; his complexion either dark or sunburnt; his eyes were bent down, and their long, very dark lashes rested on his cheek, but when raised, their beautiful blue seemed so little in accordance with the brunette skin, that the sun might be deemed more at fault than Nature; his hair, of the darkest brown, clustered closely round his throat in short thick curls; his garb was that of a page, but more rude than the general habiliments of those usually petted members of noble establishments, and favored both Hereford and Lancaster's belief that he was either the son or grandson of his companion.
"Ye are welcome, fair sirs," was the elder earl's kindly salutation, when his esquire had retired. "Who and what are ye, and what crave ye with me?"
"We are Scotsmen, an it so please you, noble lords," replied the old man; "followers and retainers of the house of Bruce, more particularly of him so lately fallen into your power."
"Then, by mine honor, my good friends, ye had done wiser to benefit by the liberty I promised and gave to those of his followers who escaped this devastating siege. Wherefore are ye here?"
"In the name of this poor child, to beseech a boon, my noble lord; for me, my calling permitteth my going where I list, unquestioned, unrestrained, and if I ask permission to abide with ye, Scotsman and follower of the Bruce as I am, I know ye will not say me nay."
"I would not, an ye besought such a boon, old man," answered the earl; "yet I would advise thee to tempt not thy fate, for even thy minstrel garb, an thou braggest of thy service to the Bruce, I cannot promise to be thy safeguard in Edward's court, whither I give ye notice I wend my way to-morrow's dawn. For this child, what wouldst thou—hath he no voice, no power of his own to speak?"
The aged minstrel looked at his charge, whose eyes were still bent on the floor; the heaving of his doublet denoted some internal emotion, but ere the old man could answer for him, he had made a few hasty steps forward, and bent his knee before Hereford.
"'Tis a simple boon I crave, my lord," he said, in a voice so peculiarly sweet, that it seemed to impart new beauty to his features; "a very simple boon, yet my lips tremble to ask it, for thou mayest deem it more weighty than it seemeth to me, and thou alone canst grant it."
"Speak it, fair child, whate'er it be," replied the earl, reassuringly, and laying his hand caressingly on the boy's head. "Thou art, methinks, over young to crave a boon we may not grant; too young, although a Scotsman, for Hereford to treat thee aught but kindly. What wouldst thou?"
"Permission to tend on my young lord, Sir Nigel Bruce," answered the boy, more firmly, and for the first time fixing the full gaze of his beautiful eyes on the earl's face. "Oh, my lord, what is there in that simple boon to bid thee knit thy brow as if it must not be?" he added, more agitated. "The noble Hereford cannot fear a child; or, if he doubted me, he cannot doubt the honor of his prisoner, an honor pure, unsullied as his own."
"Thou speakest not as the child thou seemest," replied Hereford, musingly; "and yet I know not, misery makes sager of us long ere the rose of youth hath faded. For this, thy boon, I know not how it may be granted; it is not usual to permit other than English attendants on our Scottish prisoners. Since Sir Niel Campbell's escape through the agency of his Scottish attendant, it hath been most strictly prohibited."
"Oh, do not, do not say me nay!" entreated the boy; "I ask but to share his imprisonment, to be with him, serve him, tend him. I ask no more liberty than is granted unto him; the rudest, coarsest fare, a little straw, or the bare ground beside his couch. I can do naught to give him freedom, and if I could, were there an open path before him—did I beseech him on my knees to fly—if he hath surrendered, as I have heard, to thee, rescue or no rescue, he would scorn my counsel, and abide thy prisoner still. Oh, no, no! I swear to thee I will do naught that can make thee regret thou hast granted an orphan's prayer."
"And who art thou that pleadeth thus?" inquired the earl, moved alike by the thrilling sweetness of his voice and the earnestness of his manner. "Thou must have some wondrous interest in him to prefer imprisonment with him to all the joys which liberty can give."
"And I have interest," answered the boy, fervently; "the interest of gratitude, and faithfulness, and love. An orphan, miserably an orphan—alone upon the wide earth—he hath protected, cherished, aye, and honored me with his confidence and love. He tended me in sorrow, and I would pour back into his noble heart all the love, the devotion he hath excited in mine. Little can I do, alas! naught but love and serve; yet, yet, I know he would not reject even this—he would let me love him still!"
"Grant the poor boy his boon," whispered Lancaster, hurriedly; "of a truth he moveth even me."
"Thine heart is of right true mettle, my child," said his colleague, even tenderly. "Yet bethink thee all thou must endure if I grant thy boon; not while with me, for there would be a foul blot upon my escutcheon did so noble a knight as Sir Nigel Bruce receive aught save respect and honor at my hands. But in this business I am but a tool, an agent; when once within the boundaries of Edward's court, Sir Nigel is no longer my prisoner; I must resign him to my sovereign; and then, I dare not give thee hope of gentle treatment either for thyself or him."
"I will brave it," answered the boy, calmly; "danger, aye, death in his service, were preferable to my personal liberty, with the torture of the thought upon me, that I shrunk from his side when fidelity and love were most needed."
"But that very faithfulness, that very love, my child, will make thy fate the harder; the scaffold and the axe, if not the cord," he added, in a low, stifled tone, "I fear me, will be his doom, despite his youth, his gallantry—all that would make me save him. Thou turnest pale at the bare mention of such things, how couldst thou bear to witness them?"
"Better than to think of them; to sit me down in idle safety and feel that he hath gone forth to this horrible doom, and I have done naught to soothe and tend him on his way," replied the boy, firmly, though his very lip blanched at Hereford's words. "But must these things be? Is Edward so inexorable?"
"Aye, unto all who thwart him now," said the earl; "there is no hope for any of the race of Bruce. Be advised, then, gentle boy, retain thy freedom while thou mayest."
"No, no!" he answered, passionately, "Oh, do not seek to fright me from my purpose; do not think aught of me, save but to grant my boon, and oh, I will bless thee, pray for thee to my dying hour! thou wilt, I know thou wilt."
"I were no father could I refuse thee, my poor child," he replied, with earnest tenderness. "Alas! I fear me thou hast asked but increase of misery, yet be it as thou list. And yet," he added, after a brief pause, during which the boy had sprung from his knee, with an inarticulate cry of joy, and flung himself into the minstrel's arms, "Sir Nigel hath resolutely refused the attendance of any of his former followers, who would willingly have attended him to England. Hast thou so much influence, thinkest thou, to change his purpose in thy favor?"
"I know not," answered the boy, timidly; "yet an it please your noble lordship to permit my pleading mine own cause without witness, I may prevail, as I have done before."
"Be it so, then," replied the earl. "And now, ere we part, I would bid thee remember I have trusted thee; I have granted that to thee, without condition, with perfect liberty of action, which to others could only have been granted on their surrendering themselves, rescue or no rescue, even as thy master. I have done this, trusting to that noble faithfulness, the candor and honesty of youth, which hath breathed forth in all that thou hast said. Let me not repent it. And now, Hugo de l'Orme," he called aloud, but Lancaster himself declared his intention of conducting the boy to Sir Nigel's tent, and the esquire was consequently dismissed; but ere they departed, the boy turned once more to the aged minstrel.
"And thou—whither goest thou?" he said, in low yet thrilling tones. "My more than father, thou hast seen thy child's earnest wish fulfilled; that for which thou didst conduct me hither is accomplished; yet ere I say farewell, tell me—oh, tell me, whither goest thou?"
"I know not," answered the old man, struggling with unexpressed emotion; "yet think not of me, my child, I shall be free, be safe, untouched by aught of personal ill, while young and lovely ones, for whom it would be bliss to die, are crushed and bleeding in their spring; the mountains, and rocks, and woods, yet unstained with blood, call on me to return, and be at rest within their caves. The love I bear to thee and him thou seekest hath yet a louder voice to bid me follow ye. I know not whither I shall go, yet an my vision telleth that thou needst my aid, I shall not be far from thee. Farewell, my child; and ye, true-hearted lords, the blessing of an aged man repay ye for the kindly deed this day that ye have done." He pressed the boy in his arms, reverentially saluted the earls, and passed from the tent as he spoke.
A few words passed between the warriors, and then Lancaster desired the page to follow him. In silence they proceeded through the camp, avoiding the more bustling parts, where the soldiery were evidently busied in preparing for the morrow's march, and inclining towards the wooded bank of the river. The eye of the Earl of Lancaster had scarcely moved from the page during his interview with Hereford, though the boy, engrossed in his own feelings, had failed to remark it. He now glanced rapidly and searchingly round him, and perceiving the ground perfectly clear, not a soldier visible, he suddenly paused in his hasty stride, and laying his hand heavily on the boy's shoulder, said, in a deep, impressive voice, "I know not who or what thou art, but I love thy master, and know that he is ill at ease, not from captivity, but from uncertainty as to the fate of one beloved. If it be, as I suspect, in thy power entirely to remove this uneasiness, be cautioned, and whoever thou mayest be, let not one in this camp, from the noble Earl of Hereford himself to the lowest soldier, suspect thou art other than thou seemest—a faithful page. The rage of Edward is deadly, and all who bear the name of Bruce, be it male or female, will suffer from that wrath. Tell this to thy lord. I ask not his confidence nor thine, nay, I would refuse it were it offered—I would know no more than my own thoughts, but I honor him, aye, and from my very heart I honor thee! Hush! not a word in answer; my speech is rude, but my heart is true; and now a few steps more and we are there," and without waiting for reply he turned suddenly, and the page found himself in the very centre of the camp, near the entrance of a small pavilion, before which two sentinels were stationed, fully armed, and pacing up and down their stated posts; the pennon of Hereford floated from the centre staff, above the drapery, marking the tent and all its appurtenances peculiarly the earl's. The watchword was exchanged, and the sentinels lowered their arms on recognizing one of their leaders.
"Let this boy have egress and ingress from and to this tent, unquestioned and unmolested," he said; "he has the Earl of Hereford's permission, nay, commands, to wait on Sir Nigel Bruce. His business lieth principally with him; but if he hath need to quit his side, he is to pass free. Report this to your comrades." The soldiers bowed in respectful acquiescence. "For thee, young man, this toy will give thee free passage where thou listeth, none shall molest thee; and now, farewell—God speed thee." He unclasped a ruby brooch, curiously set in antique gold, from his collar, and placed it in the boy's hand.
"Dost thou not enter?" asked the page, in a voice that quivered, and the light of the torches falling full on his face disclosed to Lancaster a look of such voiceless gratitude, it haunted him for many a long day.
"No," he said, half smiling, and in a lower voice; "hast thou forgotten thy cause was to be pleaded without witness? I have not, if thou hast. I will see thy noble master ere he depart, not now; thou wilt, I trust me, take him better comfort than I could."
He lifted the hangings as he spoke, and the boy passed in, his heart beating well-nigh to suffocation as he did so. It was in a small compartment leading to the principal chamber of the tent he found himself at first, and Sir Nigel was not there. With a fleet, yet noiseless movement, he drew aside the massive curtain, let it fall again behind him, and stood unperceived in the presence of him he sought.
The brow of Sir Nigel rested on his hand, his attitude was as one bowed and drooping 'neath despondency; the light of the taper fell full upon his head, bringing it out in beautiful profile. It was not his capture alone which had made him thus, the boy felt and knew; the complicated evils which attended his king and country in his imprisonment were yet not sufficient to crush that spirit to the earth. It was some other anxiety, some yet nearer woe; there had been many strange rumors afloat, both of Sir Nigel's bridal and the supposed fate of that bride, and the boy, though he knew them false, aye, and that the victim of Jean Roy was a young attendant of Agnes, who had been collecting together the trinkets of her mistress, to save them from the pillage which would attend the conquest of the English, and had been thus mistaken by the maniac—the boy, we say, though he knew this, had, instead of denying it, encouraged the report, and therefore was at no loss to discover his master's woe. He advanced, knelt down, and in a trembling, husky voice, addressed him. "My lord—Sir Nigel."
The young knight started, and looked at the intruder, evidently without recognizing him. "What wouldst thou?" he said, in a tone somewhat stern. "Who art thou, thus boldly intruding on my privacy? Begone, I need thee not!"
"The Earl of Hereford hath permitted me to tend thee, follow thee," answered the page in the same subdued voice. "My gracious lord, do not thou refuse me."
"Tend me—follow me! whither—to the scaffold? Seek some other master, my good boy. I know thee not, and can serve thee little, and need no earthly aid. An thou seekest noble service, go follow Hereford; he is a generous and knightly lord."
"But I am Scotch, my lord, and would rather follow thee to death than Hereford to victory."
"Poor child, poor child!" repeated Nigel, sadly. "I should know thee, methinks, an thou wouldst follow me so faithfully, and yet I do not. What claim have I upon thy love?"
"Dost thou not know me, Nigel?" The boy spoke in his own peculiarly sweet and most thrilling voice, and raising his head, fixed his full glance upon the knight.
A wild cry burst from Nigel's lips, he sprang up, gazed once again, and in another moment the page and knight had sprung into each other's arms; the arms of the former were twined round the warrior's neck, and Sir Nigel had bent down his lordly head; burning tears and impassioned kisses were mingled on the soft cheek that leaned against his breast.
The ancient town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, associated as it is with Scottish and English history from the time these two kingdoms had a name, presented a somewhat different aspect in the year 1307 to that of the present day. The key to both countries, it was ever a scene of struggle, unless the sister kingdoms chanced to be at peace, an event in the middle ages of rare occurrence, and whoever was its fortunate possessor was undeniably considered as the greater power. Since the death of Alexander it had been captured no less than three times by Edward in 1296, by Wallace the succeeding year, and recaptured by the English the following spring. To Edward, consequently, it now belonged, and many and fearful had been the sanguinary executions its walls had beheld. Its streets had been deluged with noble Scottish blood; its prisons filled with the nobles of Scotland; even high-minded women, who by their countenance and faithfulness had given a yet higher tone to patriotism and valor, were said to be there immured. It might have been termed not alone the key, but the dungeon and grave of Scotland; and many a noble spirit which had never quailed in the battle's front, shrunk back appalled as it neared those dismal walls.
In the time of Edward, the fortifications, though merely consisting of a deep moat and wooden palisades, instead of the stone wall still remaining, inclosed a much larger space than the modern town. A magnificent castle, with its "mounts, rampiers, and flankers," its towers, walls, and courts, crowned an easy ascent overhanging the Tweed, and was at this period peopled by a powerful garrison, filled with immense stores, both of arms, artillery, and provisions, and many unhappy prisoners, who from their lonely turrets could look beyond the silver Tweed on their own beautiful land, their hearts burning with the vain desire to free her from her chains. Both square and round towers guarded the palisades and moat surrounding the town, which presented a goodly collection of churches, hospitals, dwelling-houses, stores, and monastic buildings; from all of which crowds were continually passing and repassing on their several ways, and forming altogether a motley assemblage of knights, nobles, men-at-arms, archers, the various orders of monks, the busy leech from the hospital, the peaceful burgher, the bustling storekeeper, and artisan, noble dames and pretty maidens—all in the picturesque costumes of the day, jostling one another, unconscious of the curious effect they each assisted to produce, and ever and anon came the trampling of fiery steeds. It was a rich, thriving, bustling town, always presenting curious scenes of activity, at present apparently under some excitement, which the gay knights and their followers tended not a little to increase.
The popular excitement had, strange to say, been confined for an unusually long time to one subject. Orders had been received from King Edward for the erection of an extraordinary cage or tower, curiously worked in stone and iron, on the very highest turret of the castle, visible to every eye, of a circular form, with pyramidal points, supporting gilded balls, giving it the appearance, when completed, of a huge coronet or crown. It was barred and cross-barred with iron on all sides, effectually preventing egress from within, but exposing its inmate, whoever that might be, to every passer-by. The impatient king had commanded several of the artisans employed in its erection to be thrown into prison, because it was not completed fast enough to please him; but, despite his wrath and impatience, the work of fashioning the iron, wood, and stone, as he required, occasioned them to proceed but slowly, and it was now, three months after the royal order had been given, only just completed, and firmly fixed on the principal turret of the castle. Day after day the people flocked to gaze and marvel for whom it could be intended, and when it would be occupied; their thoughts only turned from it by the intelligence that the Earl of Hereford, with some Scottish prisoners of high rank, was within four-and-twenty hours' march of the town, and was there to deliver up his captives to the seneschal of the castle, the Earl of Berwick. At the same time rumors were afloat, that the prisoner for whom that cage had been erected was, under a strong guard, advancing from Carlisle, and likely to encounter Hereford at the castle gates.
The popular excitement increased threefold; the whole town seemed under the influence of a restless fever, utterly preventing the continuance of their usual avocations, or permitting them to rest quiet in their houses. Crowds filled the streets, and pressed and fumed to obtain places by the great gates and open squares of the castle, through which both parties must pass. That wind, rain, and sunshine alternately ruled the day, was a matter of small importance; nor did it signify that English soldiers were returning victorious, with Scottish prisoners, being a thing now of most common occurrence. Before the day was over, however, they found anticipation for once had been less marvellous than reality, and stranger things were seen and heard than they had dreamed of.
From sunrise till noon they waited and watched, and waxed impatient in vain. About that time trumpets and drums were heard from the south, and there was a general rush towards the bridge, and hearts beat high in expectancy of they knew not what, as a gallant band of English archers and men-at-arms, headed by some few knights, were discovered slowly and solemnly advancing from the Carlisle road. Where, and who was the prisoner? A person of some consequence, of dangerous influence it must be, else why had the king made such extraordinary provision for confinement? There were not wanting suggestions and guesses, and wondrous fancies; for as yet there was such a close guard in the centre of the cavalcade, that the very person of the prisoner could not be distinguished. Nay, there were some who ventured to hint and believe it might be the excommunicated Earl of Carrick himself. It was most likely, for whom else could the cage, so exactly like a crown, be intended? and there were many who vaunted the wise policy of Edward, at having hit on such an expedient for lowering his rival's pride. Others, indeed, declared the idea was all nonsense; it was not likely he would incur such expense, king as he was, merely to mortify a traitor he had sworn to put to death. The argument waxed loud and warm. Meanwhile the cavalcade had crossed the bridge, been received through the south gate, and in the same slow and solemn pomp proceeded through the town.
"By all the saints, it is only a woman!" was the information shouted by an eager spectator, who had clambered above the heads of his fellows to obtain the first and most coveted view. His words were echoed in blank amazement.
"Aye, clothed in white like a penitent, with her black hair streaming all over her shoulders, without any covering on her head at all, and nothing but a thin, torn sandal on her bare feet; and the knights look black as thunder, as if they like not the business they are engaged in."
It was even so. There was an expression on the face of the officers impossible to be misunderstood; frowningly, darkly, they obeyed their sovereign's mandate, simply because they dared not disobey; but there was not one among them who would not rather have sought the most deadly front of battle than thus conduct a woman, aye, and a most noble one, unto her prison. The very men, rude, stern, as they mostly were, shared this feeling; they guarded her with lowered heads and knitted brows; and if either officer or man-at-arms had to address her, it was with an involuntary yet genuine movement and manner of respect that little accorded with their present relative position. The crowds looked first at the cavalcade and marvelled, then at the prisoner, and they did not marvel more.
Clad as she was, in white, flowing garments, very similar to those worn by penitents, her head wholly undefended from cold or rain even by a veil; her long, luxuriant, jet-black hair, in which as yet, despite of care and woe, no silver thread had mingled, falling round her from her noble brow, which shone forth from its shade white as snow, and displaying that most perfect face, which anguish had only chiselled into paler, purer marble; it could not rob it of its beauty, that beauty which is the holy emanation of the soul, that lingered still with power to awe the rudest heart, to bow the proudest in voluntary respect.
The sovereign of England had commanded this solemn procession and its degrading accompaniments to humble, to crush to dust, the woman who had dared defy his power, but it was himself alone he humbled. As she walked there, surrounded by guards, by gazing hundreds, on foot, and but protected from the flinty ground by a thin sandal, her step was as firm and unfaltering, her attitude, her bearing as dignified, as calmly, imposingly majestic as when, in the midst of Scotland's patriots, she had placed the crown on the Bruce's head. Edward sought to debase her, but she was not debased; to compel her to regret the part that she had acted, but she gloried in it still; to acknowledge his power—but in all he failed.
Calmly and majestically the Countess of Buchan proceeded on her way, neither looking to the right or left, nor evincing by the slightest variation of countenance her consciousness of the many hundreds gazing on, or that they annoyed or disturbed her; her spirit was wrapt in itself. We should assert falsehood did we say she did not suffer; she did, but it was a mother's agony heightened by a patriot's grief. She believed her son, who had been in truth the idol of her mourning heart, had indeed fallen. Her Agnes was not amongst the queen's train, of whose captivity she had been made aware, though not allowed speech with them. Where was she—what would be her fate? She only knew her as a lovely, fragile flower, liable to be crushed under the first storm; and pictured her, rudely severed from Nigel, perchance in the hands of some lawless spoiler, and heart-broken, dying. Shuddering with anguish, she thought not of her own fate—she thought but of her children, of her country; and if King Robert did enter these visions, it was simply as her sovereign, as one whose patriotism would yet achieve the liberty of Scotland; but there was a dimness even o'er that dream, for the figure of her noble boy was gone, naught but a blank—dull, shapeless—occupied that spot in the vision of the future, which once his light had filled.
The castle-yard was at length gained, and a half and some change in the line of march ensued; the officers and men formed in a compact crescent, leaving the countess, a herald, trumpeters, and some of the highest knights, in front. So intense was the interest of the crowd at this moment, that they did not heed the rapid advance of a gallant body of horse and foot from the north, except to rail at the pressure they occasioned in forcing their way through. They gained the castle-yard at length, and there halted, and fell back in utter astonishment at the scene they witnessed.
The herald had drawn a parchment from his belt, and made a step forward as if to speak. The knights, in sullen silence, leant upon their sheathed swords, without even glancing at their prisoner, who appeared far the most composed and dignified of all present, and, after a brief pause, words to this effect were distinguished by the crowd.
"To our loyal and loving subjects of both North and South Britain, Edward, by the grace of God, King of England, Wales, France, and Scotland, greeting. Whereas Isabella, born of Fife, and late of Buchan, which latter she hath, by foul dishonor and utter disregard of marriage vows, now forfeited, hath done traitorously and disloyally alike to her sovereign lord the king, and to her gracious lord and husband, John, Earl of Buchan, whom, for his fidelity, we hold in good favor. As she hath not struck by the sword, so she shall not perish by the sword; but for her lawless conspiracy, she shall be shut up in a stone and iron chamber, circular as the crown she gave, in this proclaiming to both countries her everlasting infamy. And this we do in mercy; for, whereas she deserveth death, we do remit the same, and give her time to repent her of her heinous crime.
"Given at our palace of Carlisle, this twenty-third day of February, in the year of our Lord and Saviour, one thousand three hundred and seven. God save the King!"
But the loyal ejaculation was not echoed, nay, the herald himself had read the proclamation, as if every word had been forced from him, and the eyes of every knight and soldier had been fixed upon the ground, as if shame rested on them rather than on their prisoner. A dead silence for a few minutes followed, broken only by some faint cries of "God save King Edward, and down with all traitors!" which seemed raised more to drown the groans which involuntarily burst forth, than as the echo of the heart. They dared not evince the faintest sign of disapproval, for they stood on precarious ground; a groan even might be punished by their irritable king as treachery; but there was one present who cared little for this charge. Scarcely had the words passed the herald's lips, before a young man, whose bare head and lack of all weapons would have proclaimed him one of the Earl of Hereford's prisoners, had not the attention of all been turned from him by the one engrossing object, now snatching a sword from a soldier near him, sprung from his horse, and violently attacking the herald, exclaimed, in a voice of thunder—
"Liar and slave! thinkest thou there is none near to give the lie to thy foul slanders—none to defend the fair fame, the stainless honor of this much-abused lady? Dastard and coward, fit mouthpiece of a dishonored and blasphemous tyrant! go tell him, his prisoner—aye, Nigel Bruce—thrusts back his foul lies into his very teeth. Ha! coward and slave, wouldst thou shun me?"
A scene of indescribable confusion now ensued. The herald, a man not much in love with war, stood cowering and trembling before his adversary, seeking to cover himself with his weapon, but, from his trembling hold, ineffectually. The stature of the youthful Scotsman appeared towering, as he stood over him with his uplifted sword, refusing to strike a defenceless man, but holding him with a gripe of iron; his cheek flushed crimson, his nostrils distended, for his soul was moved with a mightier, darker passion than had ever stirred its depths before. The soldiers of both parties, joined, too, by some from the castle—for a party headed by the Earl of Berwick himself had attended to give countenance to the proclamation—rushed forward, but involuntarily fell back, awed for the moment by the mighty spirit of one man; the knights, roused from their sullen posture, looked much as if they would, if they dared, have left the herald to his fate. Hereford and Berwick at the same instant spurred forward their steeds, the one exclaiming, "Madman, let go your hold—you are tempting your own fate! Nigel, for the love of heaven! for the sake of those that love you, be not so rash!" the other thundering forth, "Cut down the traitor, an he will not loose his hold. Forward, cowardly knaves! will ye hear your king insulted, and not revenge it?—forward, I say! fear ye a single man?"
And numbers, spurred on by his words, dashed forward to obey him, but fearlessly Sir Nigel Bruce retained his hold with his left hand, and with his right grasped tighter his sword, and stood, with the fierce undaunted port of a lion lashed into fury, gazing on his foes; but ere he had crossed with the foremost weapons, a slight lad burst through the gathering crowd, and with a piercing shriek threw himself at his master's feet, and grasping his knees, seemed by his pleading looks, for his words were inaudible, imploring him to desist from his rashness. At the same moment another form pressed through the soldiers, her look, her mien compelling them involuntarily to open their ranks and give her passage. The sword of Nigel was in the act of falling on a second foe, the first lay at his feet, when his arm was caught in its descent, and Isabella of Buchan stood at his side.
"Forbear!" she said, in those rich impressive tones that ever forced obedience. "Nigel Bruce, brother of my sovereign, friend of my son, forbear! strike not one blow for me. Mine honor needs no defence by those that love me; my country will acquit me; the words of England's monarch, angered at a woman's defiance of his power, affect me not! Noble Nigel, excite not further wrath against thyself by this vain struggle for my sake; put up thy sword, ere it is forced from thee. Let go thy hold; this man is but an instrument, why wreak thy wrath on him? Must I speak, implore in vain? Nay, then, I do command thee!"
And those who gazed on her, as she drew that stately form to its full height, as they heard those accents of imperative command, scarce marvelled that Edward should dread her influence, woman as she was. Despite the increasing wrath on the Earl of Berwick's brow, the men waited to see the effect of these words. There was still an expression of ill-controlled passion on Nigel's features. He waited one moment when she ceased to speak, then slowly and deliberately shook the herald by the collar, and hurled him from his hold; snapped his sword in twain, and flinging it from him, folded his arms on his breast, and calmly uttering, "Pardon me, noble lady, mine honor were impugned had I suffered that dastardly villain to pass hence unpunished—let Edward act as he lists, it matters little now," waited with impenetrable resolve the rage he had provoked.
"Nigel, Nigel, rash, impetuous boy, what hast thou done?" exclaimed the countess, losing all mien and accent of command in the terror with which she clung round him, as if to protect him from all ill, in the tone and look of maternal tenderness with which she addressed him. "Why, why must it be my ill fate to hurl down increase of misery and danger on all whom I love?"
"Speak not so, noble lady, in mercy do not!" he whispered in reply; "keep that undaunted spirit shown but now, I can better bear it than this voice of anguish. And thou," he added, laying his hand on the shoulder of the boy, who still clung to his knees, as if fascinated there by speechless terror, and gazed alternately on him and the countess with eyes glazed almost in madness, "up, up; this is no place for thee. What can they do with me but slay—let them come on—better, far better than a scaffold!" but the boy moved not, Nigel spoke in vain.
The fate he dared seemed indeed threatening. Wrought well-nigh to phrensy at this daring insult to his sovereign, in whose acts of cruelty and oppression he could far better sympathize than in his more knightly qualities, the Earl of Berwick loudly and fiercely called on his soldiers to advance and cut down the traitor, to bring the heaviest fetters and bear him to the lowest dungeon. The men, roused from their stupor of amaze, rushed on impetuously to obey him; their naked swords already gleamed round Nigel; the Countess of Buchan was torn from his side, her own especial guards closing darkly around her; but vainly did they seek to unclasp the convulsive grasp of the boy from Nigel, he neither shrieked nor spake, but he remained in that one posture, rigid as stone.
"Fiends! monsters! would ye, dare ye touch a boy, a child as this!" shouted Nigel, struggling with herculean strength to free himself from the rude grasp of the soldiers, as he beheld the sharp steel pointed at the breast of the boy, to compel him to unloose his hold. "Villains, cowards! bear back and let me speak with him," and nerved to madness by the violence of his emotions, he suddenly wrenched himself away, the rapidity of the movement throwing one of the men to the earth, and bent over the boy; again they rushed forward, they closed upon him, they tore away the lad by force of numbers, and flung him senseless on the earth; they sought to bear away their prisoner, but at that moment Hereford, who had been parleying loudly and wrathfully with Berwick, spurred his charger in the very midst of them, and compelled them to bear back.
"Back, back!" he exclaimed, making a path for himself with his drawn sword; "how dare ye thrust yourselves betwixt me and my lawful prisoner, captive of my sword and power? what right have ye to dare detain him? Let go your hold, none but the men whose prowess gained this gallant prize shall guard him till my sovereign's will be known. Back, back, I say!"
"Traitor!" retorted Berwick, "he is no longer your prisoner. An insult offered to King Edward, in the loyal citadel of Berwick, in my very presence, his representative as I stand, shall meet with fit retribution. He hath insulted his sovereign by act and word, and I attach him of high treason and will enforce my charge. Forward, I say!"
"And I say back!" shouted the Earl of Hereford; "I tell thee, proud earl, he is my prisoner, and mine alone. Thou mayest vaunt thy loyalty, thy representation of majesty, as thou listeth, mine hath been proved at the good sword's point, and Edward will deem me no traitor because I protect a captive, who hath surrendered himself a knight to a knight, rescue or no rescue, from this unseemly violence. I bandy no more words with such as thee; back! the first man that dares lay hold on him I chastise with my sword."
"Thou shalt repent this!" muttered Berwick, with a suppressed yet terrible oath, but he dared proceed no further.
A signal from their leader brought up all Hereford's men, who, in compact order and perfect silence, surrounded their prisoner. Sternly the earl called for a pair of handcuffs, and with his own hands fastened them on his captive. "It grieves me," he said, "to see a brave man thus manacled, but thine own mad act hath brought it on thyself. And now, my Lord of Berwick, an it please thee to proceed, we demand admission to thy citadel in King Edward's name. Bring up the other prisoners."
Concealing his wrath with difficulty, the Earl of Berwick and his attendants dashed forward over the drawbridge into the castle at full speed, closing the gates and lowering the portcullis after them. After a brief space, the portcullis was again raised, the gates flung wide apart, and the men-at-arms were discerned lining either side, in all due form and homage to the officers of their sovereign. During the wrathful words passing between the two earls, the attention of the crowd had been given alternately to them and to the Countess of Buchan, who had utterly forgotten her own precarious situation in anxiety for Nigel, and in pity for the unfortunate child, who had been hurled by the soldiers close to the spot where she stood.
"Do not leave him there, he will be trampled on," she said, imploringly, to the officers beside her. "He can do no harm, poor child, Scotch though he be. A little water, only bring me a little water, and he will speedily recover."
All she desired was done, the boy was tenderly raised and brought within the circle of her guards, and laid on the ground at her feet. She knelt down beside him, chafed his cold hands within her own, and moistened his lips and brow with water. After a while his scattered senses returned, he started up in a sitting posture, and gazed in wild inquiry around him, uttering a few inarticulate words, and then saying aloud, "Sir Nigel, my lord, my—my—master, where is he? oh! let me go to him; why am I here?"
"Thou shalt go to him, poor boy, as soon as thy strength returns; an they have let thee follow him from Scotland, surely they will not part ye now," said the countess soothingly, and her voice seemed to rouse the lad into more consciousness. He gazed long in her face, with an expression which at that time she could not define, but which startled and affected her, and she put her arm round him and kissed his brow. A convulsive almost agonized sob broke from the boy's breast, and caused his slight frame to shake as with an ague, then suddenly he knelt before her, and, in accents barely articulate, murmured—
"Bless me, oh bless me!" while another word seemed struggling for utterance, but checked with an effort which caused it to die on his lips in indistinct murmurs.
"Bless thee, poor child! from my very heart I do, if the blessing of one sorrowing and afflicted as myself can in aught avail thee. For thy faithfulness to thy master, I bless thee, for it speaketh well for thee, and that face would bid me love and bless thee for thyself, I know not wherefore. Good angels keep and bless thee, gentle boy, thou hast Isabella's prayers, and may they give thee peace."
"Pray for me, aye, pray for me," repeated the boy, in the same murmured tones. He clasped her hands in both his, he pressed them again and again to his lips, repeated sobs burst from his laboring breast, and then he sprung up, darted away, and stood at Sir Nigel's side, just as the Earl of Hereford had commanded his men to wheel a little to the right, to permit the Countess of Buchan, her guards and officers, free passage over the drawbridge, and first entrance within the fortress.
The brow of this noble son of chivalry darkened as, sitting motionless on his tall steed, his gaze rested on the noble woman whom it had originally been his painful charge to deliver over to his sovereign. He had not dreamed of a vengeance such as this. He could not have believed a change so dark as this had fallen on the character of a sovereign whom he still loved, still sought to admire and revere, and his spirit sunk 'neath the sorrow this conviction caused. Almost involuntarily, as the procession slowly proceeded, and the countess passed within three paces of his horse's head, he bent his lordly brow in silent homage; she saw it and returned it, more effected by the unfeigned commiseration on that warrior's face, than at aught which had occurred to shame and humble her that morning.
A brief pause took place in the movements of the officers and their prisoners, when they reached the great hall of the castle. For a brief minute Lady Seaton and the Countess of Buchan had met, had clasped hands, in sad, yet eager greeting. "My child, mine Agnes?" had been by the latter hurriedly whispered, and the answer, "Safe, I trust, safe," just permitted to reach her ear, when roughly and fiercely the Earl of Berwick summoned the Lady of Buchan to proceed to the chamber appointed for her use. Those simple words had, however, removed a load of anxiety from her mind, for they appeared to confirm what she had sometimes permitted herself to hope, that Agnes had shared King Robert's exile, under the care of Lady Campbell; prevailed on to do so, perchance, by the entreaties of Nigel, who in all probability had deemed that course, though one of hardship, less perilous than remaining with him. She hoped indeed against her better judgment, for though she knew not the depth, the might of her daughter's feelings, she knew it must have been a terrible trial so to part, and she absolutely shuddered when she thought of the whelming blow it would be to that young heart when the fate of her betrothed was ascertained.
Lady Seaton had spoken as she believed. No communication had been permitted between the prisoners on their way to England; indeed, from Sir Christopher's wounded and exhausted state, he had travelled more leisurely in a litter, always in the rear of the earl's detachment, and occupied by her close attendance upon him, his wife had scarcely been aware of the young page ever in attendance on her brother, or deemed him, if she did observe him, a retainer of Hereford's own. There was so much of fearful peril and misery hovering over her in her husband's fate, that it was not much wonder her thoughts lingered there more than on Agnes, and that she was contented to believe as she had spoken, that she at least was safe.
Night fell on the town of Berwick. Silence and darkness had come on her brooding wings; the varied excitement of the day was now but a matter of wondering commune round the many blazing hearths, where the busy crowds of the morning had now gathered. Night came, with her closing pall, her softened memories, her sleeping visions, and sad waking dreams. She had come, alike to the mourned and mourner, the conqueror and his captive, the happy and the wretched. She had found the Earl of Berwick pacing up and down his stately chamber, his curtained couch unsought, devising schemes to lower the haughty pride of the gallant warrior whom he yet feared. She had looked softly within the room where that warrior lay, and found him, too, sleepless, but not from the same dark dreams. He grieved for his sovereign, for the fate of one noble spirit shrined in a woman's form, and restless and fevered, turned again and again within his mind how he might save from a yet darker doom the gallant youth his arms had conquered. And not alone on them did night look down. She sent her sweet, reviving influence, on the rays of a bright liquid star, through the narrow casement which gave light to the rude unfurnished chamber where Sir Nigel Bruce and his attendant lay. They had not torn that poor faithful child from his side. Hereford's last commands had been that they should not part them, and there they now lay; and sleep, balmy sleep had for them descended on the wings of night, hovering over that humble pallet of straw, when from the curtained couch of power, the downy bed of luxury, she fled. There they lay; but it was the boy who lay on the pallet of straw, his head pillowed by the arm of the knight, who sat on a wooden settle at his side. He had watched for a brief space those troubled slumbers, but as they grew calmer and calmer, he had pressed one light kiss on the soft yielding cheek, and then leant his head on his breast, and he too slept—even in sleep tending one beloved.
And in the dark, close sleeping-chamber within the prison cage of the noble Countess of Buchan, night too looked pityingly. Sleep indeed was not there; it had come and gone, for in a troubled slumber a dream had come of Agnes, and she had woke to think upon her child, and pray for her; and as she prayed, she thought of her promise to the poor boy who had so strangely moved her. She could not trace how one thought had sprung from the other, nor why in the darkness his features so suddenly flashed before her; but so it was. His face seemed to gleam upon her with the same strange, indefinable expression which, even at the time, had startled her; and then a sudden flash appeared to illumine that darkness of bewilderment. She started up from her reclining posture; she pressed both hands on her throbbing eyeballs; a wild, sickening yearning took possession of her whole soul; and then she felt, in its full bitterness, she was a chained and guarded prisoner and the deep anguish of her spirit found vent in the convulsive cry—
"Fool, fool that I was—my child! my child!"
Leaving the goodly town of Berwick and its busy citizens, its castle and its prisoners, for a brief space, we must now transport our readers to a pleasant chamber overlooking the Eden, in the castle of Carlisle, now a royal residence; a fact which, from its numerous noble inmates, its concourse of pages, esquires, guards, and various other retainers of a royal establishment, the constant ingress and egress of richly-attired courtiers, the somewhat bustling, yet deferential aspect of the scene, a very cursory glance would have been all-sufficient to prove.
It had been with a full determination to set all obstacles, even disease itself, at defiance, King Edward, some months before, had quitted Winchester, and directed his march towards the North, vowing vengeance on the rebellious and disaffected Scots, and swearing death alone should prevent the complete and terrible extermination of the traitors. He had proceeded in this spirit to Carlisle, disregarding the threatening violence of disease, so sustained by the spirit of disappointed ambition within as scarcely to be conscious of an almost prostrating increase of weakness and exhaustion. He had determined to make a halt of some weeks at Carlisle, to wait the effect of the large armies he had sent forward to overrun Scotland, and to receive intelligence of the measures they had already taken. Here, then, disease, as if enraged that he should have borne up so long, that his spirit had mastered even her, convened the whole powers of suffering, and compelled him not alone to acknowledge, but to writhe beneath her sway. His whole frame was shaken; intolerable pains took possession of him, and though the virulence of the complaint was at length so far abated as to permit him a short continuance of life, he could never sit his horse again, or even hope to carry on in his own person his plans for the total reduction of Scotland. But as his frame weakened, as he became the victim of almost continual pain, all the darker and fiercer passions of his nature gained yet more fearful ascendency. The change had been some time gathering, but within the last twelve months its effects were such, that his noblest, most devoted knights, blind as their affection for his person rendered them, could scarce recognize in the bloodthirsty, ambitious tyrant they now beheld their gallant, generous, humane, and most chivalric sovereign, who had won golden opinions from all sorts and conditions of men; who had performed the duties of a son and husband so as to fix the eyes of all Europe on him in admiration; who had swayed the sceptre of his mighty kingdom with such a powerful and fearless hand, it had been long since England had acquired such weight in the scale of kingdoms. Wise, moderate, merciful even in strict justice as he had been, could it be that ambition had wrought such change; that disease had banished every feeling from his breast, save this one dark, fiend-like passion, for the furtherance of which, or in revenge of its disappointment, noble blood flowed like water—the brave, the good, the young, the old, the noble and his follower, alike fell before the axe or the cord of the executioner? Could it indeed be that Edward, once such a perfect, glorious scion of chivalry, had now shut up his heart against its every whisper, lest it should interfere with his brooding visions of revenge; forgot each feeling, lest he should involuntarily sympathize with the noble and knightly spirit of the patriots of Scotland, whom he had sworn to crush? Alas! it was even so; ruthless and tyrannical, the nobles he had once favored, once loved, now became odious to him, for their presence made him painfully conscious of the change within himself; and he now associated but with spirits dark, fierce, cruel as his own—men he would once have shunned, have banished from his court, as utterly unworthy of his favor.
It was, then, in a royally-furnished chamber, pleasantly overlooking the river Eden and the adjoining country, that about a week after the events narrated in the preceding chapter, King Edward reclined. His couch was softly and luxuriously cushioned, and not a little art had been expended in the endeavor to lighten his sufferings, and enable him to rest at ease. The repeated contraction of his countenance, however, betrayed how impotent was even luxury when brought in contact with disease. The richly-furred and wadded crimson velvet robe could not conceal the attenuation of his once peculiarly fine and noble form; his great length of limb, which had gained him, and handed down to posterity, the inelegant surname of Longshanks, rendered his appearance yet more gaunt and meagre; while his features, which once, from the benignity and nobleness of his character, had been eminently handsome, now pale, thin, and pointed, seemed to express but the one passion of his soul—its gratification of revenge. His expansive brow was now contracted and stern, rendered more so perhaps by the lack of hair about the temples; he wore a black velvet cap, circled coronet-wise with large diamonds from which a white feather drooped to his shoulder. There was a slight, scarcely visible, sneer resting on his features that morning, called forth perhaps by his internal scorn of the noble with whom he had deigned a secret conference; but the Earl of Buchan had done him good service, had ably forwarded his revenge, and he would not therefore listen to that still voice of scorn.
"Soh! she is secure, and your desires on that head accomplished, sir earl," he said, in continuance of some subject they had been discussing. "Thou hast done us good service, and by mine honor, it would seem we have done your lordship the same."
"Aye," muttered the earl, whose dark features had not grown a whit more amiable since we last beheld him; "aye, we are both avenged."
"How, sir I darest thou place thyself on a par with me?" angrily retorted Edward; "thinkest thou the sovereign of England can have aught in common with such as thee? Isabella of Buchan, or of Fife, an thou likest that better, is debased, imprisoned, because she hath dared insult our person, defy our authority, to act treasonably and mischievously, and sow dissension and rebellion amid our Scottish subjects—for this she is chastised; an it gratify your matrimonial revenge, I am glad on't; but Edward of England brooks no equality with Comyn of Buchan, though it be but equality in revenge."
Buchan bent his knee, and humbly apologized.
"Well, well, let it be; thou hast served us too faithfully to be quarrelled with, for perchance unintentional irreverence. The imposition of her child's murder, when he lives and is well, is the coinage of thine own brain, sir earl, and thou must reconcile it to thine own conscience. We hold ourselves exempt from all such peculiar mercy, for we scarce see its wisdom." There was a slight bitterness in Edward's tone.
"Wisdom, my sovereign liege, deemest thou there is no wisdom in revenge?" and the brow of the earl grew dark with passion, as he spoke. "Have I naught to punish, naught to avenge in this foul traitress—naught, that her black treachery has extended to my son, my heir, even to his tender years? I would not have her death; no, let her live and feed on the belief that her example, her counsels have killed her own child; that had it not been for her, he might have lived, been prosperous, aye, and happy now. Is there no wisdom in such revenge? and if there be none, save that which my own heart feels, I could give your grace another and a better reason for this proceeding."
"Speak it, in St. George's name," replied the king; "of a truth thou art of most clear conception in all schemes of vengeance. I might have thought long enough, ere I could have lighted on such as this. What more?"
"Simply, your grace, that by encouraging a little while the report of his death, his friends in Scotland will forget that he ever existed, and make no effort for his rescue; which belief, wild and unfounded as it is, I imagine supports him in his strenuous determination to live and die a traitor to your highness. I have no hatred to the boy; nay, an he would let me, could love and be proud of him, now his mother cannot cross my path, and would gladly see him devoted, as myself, to the interests of your grace. Nor do I despair of this; he is very young, and his character cannot be entirely formed. He will tire in time of dark and solitary confinement, and gladly accept any conditions I may offer."
"Gives he any proof as yet of this yielding mood?"
"By mine honor, no, your highness; he is firm and steadfast as the ocean rock."
"Then wherefore thinkest thou he will change in time?"
"Because as yet, my gracious liege, the foul, treacherous principles of his mother have not ceased to work. An entire cessation of intercourse between them will show him his mistake at last, and this could never be, did she know he lived. Imprisoned, guarded as she is, she would yet find some means of communication with him, and all my efforts would be of no avail. Let a year roll by, and I will stake my right hand that Alan of Buchan becomes as firm a supporter and follower of King Edward as ever his father was. Is the boy more than mortal, and does your grace think life, liberty, riches, honors, will not weigh against perpetual imprisonment and daily thoughts of death?"
So spoke the Earl of Buchan, judging, as most men, others by himself, utterly unable to comprehend the high, glorious, self-devoted, patriotic spirit of his noble son. He persevered in his course of fiend-like cruelty, excusing it to his own conscience, if he had any, by the belief it would end but in his son's good—an end, indeed, he seldom thought of attaining; but there was something in the idea of a son, an heir, and one so prepossessing in appearance as Alan of Buchan, that touched his pride, the only point on which his flinty heart was vulnerable.
"So thou thinkest, sir earl?" resumed the king, who perhaps in his own secret soul did not entirely think with him. "Meanwhile the stripling may laugh thy parental care to scorn, by escaping from iron chains and stone walls, and seeking out the arch rebel Bruce, make up at the sword's point for lost time. Beware, sir earl, an he be taken again thus in arms against us, even thy loyal services will not save his head!"
"I should not even ask your grace's clemency," replied the earl, his features assuming a fearful expression as he spoke. "An he thus turned traitor again to his father's house, spurning mine and your grace's favor, to join the base murderer of his kinsman, he shall be no more to me than others, whose treason hath cost their heads; but I have no fear of this. He cannot escape, guarded as he is, by alike the most ruthless and the most faithful of my followers; and while there, if all else fail, I will publish that he lives, but so poison the ears of his rebel Scottish friends against him, he will not, dare not join them, and in his own despite, will be compelled to act as befitting his father's son. Trust me, my liege. To thy royal clemency I owe his life; be it my duty, then, to instil into him other principles than those which actuated him before."
"But your own character, my lord, meanwhile, care ye naught for the stain supposed to rest upon it? Thy plans sound wise, and we thank thee for thy loyalty; but we would not ye burdened your name with a deed not its own, an ye cared for the world's applause."
"Not a whit, not a whit, your highness; countenanced by your grace's favor, absolved in your opinion from the barbarity others charge me with, I care not for them, I have been too long mine own conscience-keeper to heed the whispers of the world," he added, his dark brows knitting closer as he spoke.
Edward smiled grimly. "Be it so, then," he said; "my Lord of Buchan, we understand each other. An that boy escapes and rejoins the traitors, and is taken, his head answers for it. An ye succeed in making him loyal as yourself, as eager a pursuer of the murderous traitor, Bruce, we will give thee the palm for policy and wisdom in our court, ourself not excepted. And now another question; it was reported Isabella of Buchan joined the rebel's court with her two children. Who and where is the second? we have heard but of one."
"A puny, spiritless wench, as I have heard, my liege; one little likely to affect your highness, and not worth the seeking."
"Nay, an she hath her mother's influence, we differ from thee, sir earl, and would rather see her within the walls of our court than in the traitor's train. I remember not her name amid those taken with the Bruce's wife. Hast inquired aught concerning her?"
"Not I, your grace," carelessly replied the earl; "of a truth, I had weightier thoughts than the detention or interest of a simple wench, who, if her mother has taught to forget me as her father, is not worth my remembering as a child."
"I give you joy of your most fatherly indifference, sir earl," answered the king, with an ill-suppressed sneer. "It would concern you little if she takes unto herself a husband midst your foes; the rebel Robert hath goodly brothers, and the feud between thy house and theirs may but impart a double enjoyment to the union."
The earl started, as if an adder had stung him. "She dare not do this thing," he said, fiercely; "she will not—she dare not. A thousand curses light upon her head even if she dreams it!"