"Nay, waste not thy breath in curses, good my lord, but up an prevent the very possibility of such a thing, an it move thee so deeply. I say not it is, but some such floating rumor has reached my ears, I can scarce trace how, save through the medium of our numerous prisoners."
"But how obtain information—where seek her? I pray you pardon me, your grace, but there are a thousand furies in the thought!" and scarcely could the consciousness of the royal presence restrain the rage which gathered on the swarthy features of the earl from finding vent in words.
"Nay, nay, my lord, let not your marvellous wisdom and sage indifference be so speedily at fault. An she be not in Margaret Bruce's train, that goodly dame may give thee some information. Seek her, and may be thou wilt learn more of this wench than thou hast since her birth. In pity to this sudden interest, we grant thee permission to visit these partners of treason in their respective convents, and learn what thou canst; an she be within thy reach, be advised, and find her a husband thyself, the best find most speedy means of eradicating her mother's counsels."
Buchan's reply was arrested on his lips by the entrance of the royal chamberlain, announcing that the Earl of Berwick had arrived in all haste from Berwick, and earnestly besought a few minutes' audience with his sovereign.
"Berwick!" repeated Edward, half raising himself in his surprise from his reclining posture. "Berwick! what the foul fiend brings him from his post at such a time? Bid him enter; haste, I charge thee."
His impatient command was speedily obeyed, The Earl of Berwick was close on the heels of the chamberlain, and now appeared, his lowly obeisance not concealing from the quick eye of his master that wrath, black as a thunder-cloud, was resting on his brow.
"How now," said the king, "what means this unseemly gear, sir earl? thou must have neither rested spur nor slackened rein, methinks, an thy garb tell truth; and wherefore seekest thou our presence in such fiery haste? Wouldst thou be private? My Lord of Buchan, thou hadst best follow our counsel ere thy interest cools."
"Nay, your grace, bid not yon noble earl depart to grant me hearing; I would speak before him, aye, and the whole court, were it needed. 'Tis but to lay the sword and mantle, with which your highness invested me as governor of the citadel of Berwick, at your grace's feet, and beseech you to accept my resignation of the same." With well-affected humility the Earl of Berwick unclasped his jewelled mantle, and kneeling down, laid it with his sheathed sword at King Edward's feet, remaining on his knee.
"Art craven, fool, or traitor?" demanded Edward, when his astonishment permitted words. "What means this? Speak out, and instantly; we are not wont to be thus trifled with. My Lord of Berwick, wherefore dost thou do this?"
"Not because I am a craven, good my liege," replied the nobleman, still on his knee, "for had I been so, King Edward's penetration would have discovered it ere he intrusted me with so great a charge—nor because I am a witless fool, unconscious of the high honor I thus tamely resign—and not because I am a traitor, gracious sovereign, for 'tis from insult and interruption in the arrest of a blasphemous traitor I am here."
"Insult—interruption!" fiercely exclaimed the king, starting up. "Who has dared—who loves his life so little as to do this? But speak on, speak on, we listen."
"Pardon me, your highness, I came to tender my resignation, not an accusation," resumed the wily earl, cautiously lashing his sovereign into fury, aware that it was much easier to gain what he wished in such moods than as he found him now. "I came but to beseech your highness to resume that which your own royal hands had given me. My authority trampled upon, my loyalty insulted, my zeal in your grace's service derided, my very men compelled, perforce of arms, to disobey me, and this by one high in your grace's estimation, nay, connected with your royal self. Surely, my gracious liege, I do but right in resigning the high honor your highness bestowed. I can have little merit to retain it, and such things be."
"But they shall not be, sir. As there is a God above us, they shall not be!" exclaimed the king, in towering wrath, and striking his hand on a small table of crystal near him with such violence as to shiver it to pieces. "By heaven and hell! they shall repent this, be it mine own son who hath been thus insolent. Speak out, I tell thee, as thou lovest thy life, speak out; drive me not mad by this cautiously-worded tale. Who hath dared trample on authority mine own hand and seal hath given—who is the traitor? Speak out, I charge thee!" and strengthened by his own passion, the king sate upright on his couch, clenching his hand till the blood sprung, and fixing his dark, fiery eyes on the earl. It was the mood he had tried for, and now artfully and speciously, with many additions, he narrated all that had passed the preceding day in the castle-yard of Berwick. Fiercer and fiercer waxed the wrath of the king.
"Fling him in the lowest dungeon, load him with the heaviest fetters hands can forge!" were the words first distinguished, when passion permitted articulation. "The villain, the black-faced traitor! it is not enough he hath dared raise arms against me, but he must beard me to the very teeth, defy me in my very palace, throw scorn upon me, maltreat an officer of mine own person! Is there no punishment but death for this foul insolence! As there is a God in heaven, he shall feel my vengeance ere he reach the scaffold—feel it, aye, till death be but too welcome!" He sunk back, exhausted by his own violence; but not a minute passed ere again he burst forth. "And Hereford, the traitor Hereford, he dared defend him! dared assault thee in the pursuance of thy duty, the audacious insolent! Doth he think, forsooth, his work in Scotland will exempt him from the punishment of insolence, of treason? as an aider and abettor of treachery he shares its guilt, and shall know whom he hath insulted. Back to thy citadel, my Lord of Berwick, see to the strict incarceration of this foul branch of treachery, aye, and look well about ye, lest any seditious citizen or soldier hath, by look or word, given aught of encouragement, or failed in due respect to our proclamation. An Hereford abet the traitor, others may be but too willing to do the like. By heaven, they shall share his fate! Bid Hereford hither on the instant, say naught of having been beforehand with him; I would list the insolent's own tale. Rest thee a brief while, my lord, and our great seal shall insure thee prompt obedience. Bid Sir Edmund Stanley attend us, my Lord of Buchan. I need scarce warn a Comyn to be secret on what has passed; I would not have the foul insolence cast into our teeth as yet proclaimed. Begone, both of ye; we would be a brief space alone."
The deadly pallor which had usurped the flush of fury on the monarch's cheek afforded such strong evidence of a sharp renewal of his internal pains, that both noblemen hesitated to obey. The damp of agony stood upon his forehead a moment in large drops, then absolutely poured down his cheeks, while his gaunt frame shook with the effort to suppress the groan which his throes wrung from him. Seizing a cordial near him, Buchan presented it on his knee, but Edward only waved them both away, angrily and impatiently pointing to the door. He loved not the weakness of an appalling disease to be witnessed by his courtiers. When utterly incapacitated from either the appearance or functions of the sovereign, he chose to be alone, his pride scarcely brooking even the cares of his young and beautiful wife, or the yet wiser and truer affection of his daughters. The effects of this interview will be seen in a future chapter.
There was an expression of both sorrow and care on the fine and winning features of the Princess Joan, Countess of Gloucester, as she sat busied in embroidery in an apartment of Carlisle Castle, often pausing to rest her head upon her hand, and glance out of the broad casement near which she sat, not in admiration of the placid scene which stretched beyond, but in the mere forgetfulness of uneasy thought. Long the favorite daughter of King Edward, perchance because her character more resembled that of her mother, Queen Eleanor, than did either of her sisters, she had till lately possessed unbounded influence over him. Not only his affection but his pride was gratified in her, for he saw much of his own wisdom, penetration, and high sense of honor reflected upon her, far more forcibly than in his weak and yielding son. But lately, the change which had so painfully darkened the character and actions of her father had extended even to her. Her affection for a long time blinded her to this painful truth, but by slow degrees it became too evident to be mistaken, and she had wept many bitter tears, less perhaps for herself than for her father, whom she had almost idolized. His knightly qualities, his wisdom, the good he had done his country, all were treasured up by her and rejoiced in with never-failing delight. His reputation, his popularity, were dear to her, even as her noble husband's. She had not only loved, she had reverenced him as some superior being who had come but to do good, to leave behind him through succeeding ages an untarnished name, enshrined in such love, England would be long ere she spoke it without tears. And now, alas! she had outlived such dreams; her reverence, lingering still, had been impaired by deeds of blood her pride in him crushed; naught but a daughter's love remaining, which did but more strongly impress upon her heart the fatal change. And now the last blow was given; he shunned her, scarcely ever summoned her to his presence, permitted the wife of a day to tend him in his sufferings, rather than the daughter of his former love, one hallowed by the memories of her mother, the beloved and faithful partner of his youth.
It was not, however, these thoughts which entirely engrossed her now not undivided sorrows. Her sister Elizabeth, the Countess of Hereford, had just left her, plunged in the deepest distress, from the extraordinary fact that her husband, summoned seemingly in all amity by the king, had been arrested by the Lord Marshal of England as an aider and abettor of treason, and was now in strict confinement within the castle; not permitted to embrace his wife and children, whom he had not seen since his arrival from Scotland, where he had so gallantly assisted the cause of Edward, and whence he had but just returned in triumph. No other cause was assigned saving having given countenance to treason and leze majeste, but that the irritation of the king had prohibited all hope of present pardon;—she, Lady Hereford, though his own daughter, having been refused admission to his presence. Both the Earl and Countess of Gloucester had anxiously striven to comfort the anxious wife, conquering their own fears to assure her that hers were groundless; that though from some mysterious cause at present irritated, as they knew too well a trifle made him now, Hereford was too good and loyal a subject for the king to proceed to extremities, whatever might have been his fault. Rumors of the confusion at Berwick had indeed reached Carlisle, and it was to have them confirmed or denied, or connected with some appearance of veracity, the Earl of Gloucester had quitted the royal sisters, determining to use his influence with his sovereign, even to dare his wrath, for the release of Hereford, whose good services in Scotland deserved a somewhat different recompense. Lady Hereford, too anxious and dispirited to remain long in one place, soon departed to seek the youthful Margaret of France, her father's beautiful wife, and beseech her influence with him, either for the pardon of her husband, or at least communication with him.
It was these sad thoughts which engrossed the Princess Joan, and they lingered too on Hereford's prisoner, the brave, and noble Nigel, for both to her husband and herself he had been in his boyhood an object not only of interest but of love. His beauty, his extraordinary talents, had irresistibly attracted them; and yet scarcely could they now believe the youthful knight, with whose extraordinary valor not only Scotland but England rung, could be that same enthusiast boy. That he had been taken, was now a prisoner in Berwick Castle, on whom sentence of death sooner or later would be passed, brought conviction but too sadly to their hearts, and made them feel yet more bitterly their influence with Edward was of no account.
"Hast thou succeeded, Gilbert? Oh, say that poor Elizabeth may at least be permitted access to her husband," was the countess's eager salutation to her husband, as he silently approached her. He shook his head sorrowfully.
"Alas! not even this. Edward is inexorable, possessed by I know not what spirit of opposition and wrath, furiously angered against Hereford, to the utter forgetfulness of all his gallant deeds in Scotland."
"But wherefore? What can have chanced in this brief period to occasion this? but a few days since he spoke of Hereford as most loyal and deserving."
"Aye, that was on the news of Kildrummie's surrender; now forgotten, from anger at a deed which but a few years back he would have been the first to have admired. That rash madman, Nigel Bruce, hath not only trebly sealed his own fate, but hurled down this mishap on his captor," and briefly he narrated all he had learned.
"It was, indeed, a rash action, Gilbert; yet was it altogether unnatural? Alas, no! the boy had had no spark of chivalry or patriotism about him, had he stood tamely by; and Gloucester," she added, with bitter tears, "years back would my father have given cause for this—would he thus have treated an unhappy woman, thus have added insult to misery, for an act which, shown to other than his rival, he would have honored, aye, not alone the deed, but the doer of it? If we, his own children, feel shamed and indignant at this cruelty, oh, what must be the feelings of her countrymen, her friends?"
"Then thou believest not the foul slander attached to the Countess of Buchan, my Joan?"
"Believe it!" she answered, indignantly; "who that has looked on that noble woman's face can give it the smallest credence? No, Gilbert, no. 'Tis published by those base spirits so utterly incapable of honor, knighthood, and patriotism themselves, that they cannot conceive these qualities in others, particularly in a female breast, and therefore assign it to motives black as the hearts which thought them; and even if it were true, is a kingly conqueror inflicting justice for treason against himself, to assign other motives for that justice? Doth he not lower himself—his own cause?"
"Alas, yes!" replied her husband, sorrowfully; "he hath done his character more injury by this last act than any which preceded. Though men might wish less blood were shed, yet still, traitors taken in arms against his person justice must condemn; but a woman, a sad and grieving woman—but do not weep thus, my gentle wife," he added, tenderly.
"Can a daughter of Edward do other than weep, my husband? Oh, if I loved him not, if my very spirit did not cling round him so closely that the fibres of both seem entwined, and his deeds of wrath, of exacting justice, fall on me as if I had done them, and overwhelm me with their shame, their remorse, then indeed I might not weep; but as it is, do not chide me, Gilbert, for weep I must."
"Thou art too noble-hearted, Joan," he said, kindly, as he circled her waist with his arm, "only too noble-hearted for these fearful times. 'Tis but too sad a proof of the change in thy royal father, that he shuns thy presence now even as he once loved it."
A confusion in the passage and ante-room disturbed their converse, and Gloucester turned towards the door to inquire the cause.
"Tis but a troublesome boy, demanding access to her highness the countess, my lord," was the reply. "I have asked his name and business, questions he deigns not, forsooth, to answer, and looks so wild and distracted, that I scarce think it accords with my duty to afford him admittance. He is no fit recipient of my lady's bounty, good my lord; trust me, he will but fright her."
"I have no such fear, my good Baldwin," said the princess, as, on hearing her name, she came forward to the centre of the chamber; "thou knowest my presence is granted to all who seek it, an this poor child seems so wild, he is the fitter object of my care. They are using violence methinks; give him entrance instantly."
The attendant departed, and returned in a very brief space, followed by a lad, whose torn and muddy garments, haggard features, and dishevelled hair indeed verified the description given. He glanced wildly round him a moment, and then flinging himself at the feet of the princess, clasped her robe and struggled to say something, of which the words "mercy, protection," were alone audible.
"Mercy, my poor child! what mercy dost thou crave? Protection I may give thee, but how may I show thee mercy?"
"Grant me but a few moments, lady, let me but speak with thee alone. I bear a message which I may not deliver to other ears save thine," said or rather gasped the boy, for he breathed with difficulty, either from exhaustion or emotion.
"Alone!" replied the countess, somewhat surprised. "Leave us, Baldwin," she added, after a moment's pause. "I am privately engaged for the next hour, denied to all, save his grace the king." He withdrew, with a respectful bow. "And now, speak, poor child, what wouldst thou? Nay, I hear nothing which my husband may not hear," she said, as the eyes of her visitor gazed fearfully on the earl, who was looking at him with surprise.
"Thy husband, lady—the Earl of Gloucester? oh, it was to him too I came; the brother-in-arms of my sovereign, one that showed kindness to—to Sir Nigel in his youth, ye will not, ye will not forsake him now?"
Few and well-nigh inarticulate as were those broken words, they betrayed much which at once excited interest in both the earl and countess, and told the reason of the lad's earnest entreaty to see them alone.
"Forsake him!" exclaimed the earl, after carefully examining that the door was closed; "would to heaven I could serve him, free him! that there was but one slender link to lay hold of, to prove him innocent and give him life, I would do it, did it put my own head in jeopardy."
"And is there none, none?" burst wildly from the boy's lips, as he sprung from his knees, and grasped convulsively the earl's arm. "Oh, what has he done that they should slay him? why do they call him guilty? He was not Edward's subject, he owed him no homage, no service, he has but fought to free his country, and is there guilt in this? oh, no, no, save him, in mercy save him!"
"Thou knowest not what thou askest, boy, how wholly, utterly impossible it is to save him. He hath hurled down increase of anger on his own head by his daring insult of King Edward's herald; had there been hope before there is none now."
A piercing cry escaped the boy, and he would have fallen had he not been supported by the countess; he looked at her pitying face, and again threw himself at her feet.
"Canst thou not, wilt thou not save him?" he cried; "art thou not the daughter of Edward, his favorite, his dearly beloved, and will he not list to thee—will he not hear thy pleadings? Oh, seek him, kneel to him as I to thee, implore his mercy—life, life, only the gift of life; sentence him to exile, perpetual exile, what he will, only let him live: he is too young, too good, too beautiful to die. Oh! do not look as if this could not be. He has told me how you both loved him, not that I should seek ye. It is not at his request I come; no, no, no, he spurns life, if it be granted on conditions. But they have torn me from him, they have borne him to the lowest dungeon, they have loaded him with fetters, put him to the torture. I would have clung to him still, but they spurned me, trampled on me, cast me forth—to die, if I may not save him! Wilt thou not have mercy, princess? daughter of Edward, oh, save him, save him!"
It is impossible in the above incoherent words to convey to the reader even a faint idea of the agonized wildness with which they were spoken; the impression of unutterable misery they gave to those who listened to them, and marked their reflection in the face of the speaker.
"Fetters—the lowest dungeon—torture," repeated Gloucester, pacing up and down with disordered steps. "Can these things be? merciful heaven, how low hath England fallen! Boy, boy, can it be thou speakest truth?"
"As there is a God above, it is truth!" he answered, passionately. "Oh, canst thou not save him from this? is there no justice, no mercy? Rise—no, no; wherefore should I rise?" he continued, clinging convulsively to the knees of the princess, as she soothingly sought to raise him. "I will kneel here till thou hast promised to plead for him with thy royal father, promised to use thine influence for his life. Oh, canst thou once have loved him and yet hesitate for this?"
"I do not, I would not hesitate, unhappy boy," replied the princess, tenderly. "God in heaven knows, were there the slenderest chance of saving him, I would kneel at my father's feet till pardon was obtained, but angered as he is now it would irritate him yet more. Alas! alas! poor child, they told thee wrong who bade thee come to Joan for influence with Edward; I have none now, less than any of his court," and the large tears fell from the eyes of the princess on the boy's upturned face.
"Then let me plead for him; give me access to Edward. Oh, I will so beseech, conjure him, he cannot, he will not say me nay. Oh, if his heart be not of steel, he will have mercy on our wretchedness; he will pardon, he will spare my husband!"
The sob with which that last word was spoken shook that slight frame, till it bowed to the very ground, and the supporting arm of the countess alone preserved her from falling.
"Thy husband!—Gracious heaven! who and what art thou?" exclaimed the earl, springing towards her, at the same instant that his wife raised her in her arras, and laid her on a couch beside them, watching with the soothing tenderness of a sister, till voice and strength returned.
"Alas! I feared there was more in this deep agony than we might see," she said; "but I imagined not, dared not imagine aught like this. Poor unhappy sufferer, the saints be praised thou hast come to me! thy husband's life I may not save, but I can give protection, tenderness to thee—aye weep, weep, there is life, reason in those tears."
The gentle voice of sympathy, of kindness, had come upon that overcharged heart, and broke the icy agony which had closed it to the relief of tears. Mind and frame were utterly exhausted, and Agnes buried her face in the hands of the princess, which she had clasped convulsively within both hers, and wept, till the wildness of agony indeed departed, but not the horrible consciousness of the anguish yet to come. Gradually her whole tale was imparted: from the resolution to follow her betrothed even to England, and cling to him to the last; the fatal conclusion of that rite which had made them one; the anxiety and suffering which had marked the days spent in effecting a complete disguise, ere she could venture near him and obtain Hereford's consent to her attending him as a page; the risks and hardships which had attended their journey to Berwick, till even a prison seemed a relief and rest; and then the sudden change, that a few days previous, the Earl of Berwick had entered Sir Nigel's prison, at the head of five or ten ruffians, had loaded him with fetters, conveyed him to the lowest and filthiest dungeon, and there had administered the torture, she knew not wherefore. Her shriek of agony had betrayed that she had followed them, and she was rudely and forcibly dragged from him, and thrust from the fortress. Her brain had reeled, her senses a brief while forsaken her, and when she recovered, her only distinct thought was to find her way to Carlisle, and there obtain access to the Earl and Countess of Gloucester, of whom her husband had spoken much during their journey to England, not with any wish or hope of obtaining mercy through their influence, but simply as the friends of former years; he had spoken of them to while away the tedious hours of their journey, and besought her, if she should be parted from him on their arrival at Berwick, to seek them, and implore their protection till her strength was restored. Of herself, however, in thus seeking them, she had thought not; the only idea, the only thought clearly connected in her mind was to beseech their influence with Edward in obtaining her husband's pardon. Misery and anxiety, in a hundred unlooked-for shapes, had already shown the fallacy of those dreams which in the hour of peril had strengthened her, and caused her to fancy that when once his wife she not only might abide by him, but that she might in some manner obtain his liberation. She did not, indeed, lament her fate was joined to his—lament! she could not picture herself other than she was, by her husband's side, but she felt, how bitterly felt, she had no power to avert his fate. Despair was upon her, cold, black, clinging despair, and she clung to the vain dream of imploring Edward's mercy, feeling at the same moment it was but the ignis fatui to her heart—urging lighting, impelling her on, but to sink in pitchy darkness when approached.
Gradually and painfully this narrative of anguish was drawn from her lips, often unconnectedly, often incoherently, but the earl and countess heard enough, to fill their hearts alike with pity and respect for the deep, unselfish love unconsciously revealed. She had told, too, her maiden name, had conjured them to conceal her from the power of her father, at whose very name she shuddered; and both those noble hearts shared her anxiety, sympathized in her anguish; and speedily she felt, if there could be comfort in such deep wretchedness, she had told her tale to those ready and willing, and able to bestow it.
The following day the barons sat in judgment on Sir Nigel Bruce, and Gloucester was obliged to join them. It was useless, both he and the princess felt, to implore the king's mercy till sentence was passed; alas! it was useless at any time, but it must have been a colder and harder heart than the Princess Joan's to look upon the face of Agnes, and yet determine on not even making one effort in his favor. At first the unhappy girl besought the earl to permit her accompanying him back to Berwick, to attend her husband on his trial; but on his proving it would but be uselessly harrowing the feelings of both, for it would not enable her to go back with him to prison, that it would be better for her to remain under the protection of the countess, endeavoring to regain strength for whatever she might have to encounter, either to accompany him to exile, if grace were indeed granted, or to return to her friends in Scotland, she yielded mournfully, deriving some faint degree of comfort in the earl's assurance that she should rejoin her husband as soon as possible, and the countess's promise that if she wished it, she should herself be witness of her interview with Edward. It was indeed poor comfort, but her mind was well-nigh wearied out with sorrow, as if incapable of bearing more, and she acquiesced from very exhaustion.
The desire that she herself should conjure the mercy of Edward had been negatived even to her anxious heart by the assurance of both the earl and the princess, that instead of doing good to her husband's cause she would but sign her own doom, perchance be consigned to the power of her father, and be compelled to relinquish the poor consolation of being with her husband to the last. It was better she should retain the disguise she had assumed, adopting merely in addition the dress of one of the princess's own pages, a measure which would save her from all observation in the palace, and give her admittance to Sir Nigel, perchance, when as his own attendant it would be denied.
The idea of rejoining her husband would have reconciled Agnes to any thing that might have been proposed, and kneeling at the feet of her protectress, she struggled to speak her willingness and blessing on her goodness, but her tongue was parched, her lips were mute, and the princess turned away, for her gentle spirit could not read unmoved the silent thankfulness of that young and breaking heart.
It would be useless to linger on the trial of Nigel Bruce, in itself a mockery of justice, as were all those which had proceeded, and all that followed it. The native nobility of Scotland were no subjects of the King of England; they owed him homage, perchance, for lands held in England, but on flocking to the standard of the Bruce these had at once been voluntarily forfeited, and they fought but as Scottish men determined to throw off the yoke of a tyrant whose arms had overrun a land to which he had no claim. They fought for the freedom of a country, for their own liberty, and therefore were no traitors; but these facts availed not with the ruthless sovereign, to whom opposition was treason. The mockery of justice proceeded, it gave a deeper impression, a graver solemnity to their execution, and therefore for not one of his prisoners was the ceremony dispensed with. Sir Christopher Seaton had been conveyed to the Tower, with his wife, under pretence of there waiting till his wounds were cured, to abide his trial, and in that awful hour Sir Nigel stood alone. Yet he was undaunted, for he feared not death even at the hangman's hand; his spirit was at peace, for he was innocent of sin; unbowed, for he was no traitor—he was a patriot warrior still. Pale he was, indeed, ashy pale, but it told a tale of intense bodily anguish. They had put him to the torture, to force from his lips the place of his brother's retreat, that being the only pretence on which the rage of Edward and the malice of Berwick could rest for the infliction of their cruelty. They could drag naught from his lips; they could not crush that exalted soul, or compel it to utter more than a faint, scarcely articulate groan, as proof that he suffered, that the beautiful frame was well-nigh shattered unto death. And now he stood upright, unshrinking; and there were hearts amid those peers inwardly grieving at their fell task, gazing on him with unfeigned admiration; while others gloried that another obstacle to their sovereign's schemes of ambition would be removed, finding, perchance, in his youth, beauty, and noble bearing, from their contrast with themselves, but fresh incentives to the doom of death, and determining, even as they sate and scowled on him, to aggravate the bitterness of that doom with all the ignominy that cruelty could devise.
He had listened in stern silence to the indictment, and evinced no sign of emotion even when, in the virulence of some witnesses against him, the most degrading epithets were lavished on himself, his family, and friends. Only once had his eye flashed fire and his cheek burned, and his right hand unconsciously sought where his weapon should have hung, when his noble brother was termed a ribald assassin, an excommunicated murderer; but quickly he checked that natural emotion, and remained collected as before. He was silent till the usual question was asked, "If he had any thing to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him?" and then he made a step forward, looked boldly and sternly around him, and spoke, in a rich, musical voice, the following brief, though emphatic words:
"Ye ask me if I could say aught why sentence of death should not be pronounced. Nobles of England, in denying the charge of treason with which ye have indicted me, I have said enough. Before ye, aye, before your sovereign, I have done nothing to merit death, save that death which a conqueror bestows on his captive, when he deems him too powerful to live. The death of a traitor I protest against; for to the King of England I am no subject, and in consequence no traitor! I have but done that which every true and honorable man must justify, and in justifying respect. I have sought with my whole heart the liberty of my country, the interest of my lawful sovereign, and will die asserting the honor and justice of my cause, even as I have lived. I plead not for mercy, for were it offered, on condition of doing homage unto Edward, I would refuse it, and choose death; protesting to the last that Robert Bruce, and he alone, is rightful king of Scotland. My lords, in condemning me to death as a captive taken in war, ye may be justified by the law of battles, I dispute not the justice of your doom; but an ye sentence me as traitor, I do deny the charge, and say my condemnation is unjust and foul, and ye are perjured in its utterance. I have said. Now let your work proceed."
He folded his arms on his breast, and awaited in unbroken silence his doom. A brief pause had followed his words. The Earl of Gloucester, who, from his rank and near connection with the king, occupied one of the seats of honor at the upper end of the large hall, and had, during the trial, vainly sought to catch the prisoner's eye, now reclined back on his seat, his brow resting on his hand, his features completely concealed by the dark drapery of his cloak. In that position he remained, not only during the pause, but while the fatal sentence was pronounced.
"By the laws of your country, and the sentence of your peers," so it ran, "you, Nigel Bruce, by manifold acts of rebellion, disaffection, and raising up arms against your lawful king, Edward, the sovereign of England and Scotland, and all the realms, castles, and lordships thereto pertaining, are proved guilty of high treason and lese majeste, and are thereby condemned to be divested of all symbols of nobility and knighthood, which you have disgraced; to be dragged on a hurdle to the common gibbet, and there hung by the neck till you are dead; your head to be cut off; your body quartered and exposed at the principal towns as a warning to the disaffected and the traitorous of all ranks in either nation, and this is to be done at whatsoever time the good pleasure of our sovereign lord the king may please to appoint. God save King Edward, and so perish all his foes!"
Not a muscle of the prisoner's face had moved during the utterance of this awful sentence. He had glanced fearlessly around him to the last, his eye resting on the figure of the Earl of Gloucester with an expression of pitying commiseration for a moment, as if he felt for him, for his deep regret in his country's shame, infinitely more than for himself. Proudly erect he held himself, as they led him in solemn pomp from the great hall of the castle, across the court to the dungeons of the condemned, gazing calmly and unflinchingly on the axe, which carried with its edge towards him proclaimed him condemned, though his doom was more ignominious than the axe bestowed. There was a time when he had shrunk from the anticipated agony of a degradation so complete as this—but not now; his spirit was already lifted up above the honors and humiliations of earth. But one dream of this world remained—one sad, sweet dream clung to his heart, and bound it with silver chains below. Where was that gentle being? He fondly hoped she had sought the friends of his boyhood, as he had implored her, should they be parted; he strove to realize comfort in the thought they would protect and save her the agony of a final parting; but he strove in vain. One wild yearning possessed him, to gaze upon her face, to fold her to his heart once, but once again: it was the last lingering remnant of mortality; he had not another thought of life but this, and this grew stronger as its hope seemed vain. But there was one near to give him comfort, when he expected it not.
Wrapped so closely in his dark, shrouding mantle that naught but the drooping feather of his cap could be distinguished, the Earl of Gloucester drew near the prisoner, and as he paused, ere the gates and bars of the prison entrance could be drawn back, whispered hurriedly yet emphatically—
"A loved one is safe and shall be so. Would to God I could do more!"
Suppressing with extreme difficulty a start of relief and surprise, the young nobleman glanced once on Gloucester's face, pressed his hands together, and answered, in the same tone—
"God in heaven bless thee! I would see her once, only once more, if it can be without danger to her; it is life's last link, I cannot snap it—parted thus." They hurried him through the entrance with the last word lingering on his lips, and before Gloucester could make even a sign of reply.
Early in the evening of the same day, King Edward was reclining on his couch, in the chamber we have before described, and, surrounded by some few of his favorite noblemen, appeared so animated by a new cause of excitement as to be almost unconscious of the internal pains which even at that moment were more than usually intense. His courtiers looked on unconcernedly while, literally shaking with disease and weakness, he coolly and deliberately traced those letters which gave a base and ignominious death to one of the best, the noblest, loveliest spirits that ever walked the earth, and signed the doom of misery and madness to another; and yet no avenging hand stretched forth between him and his victim, no pang was on his heart to bid him pause, be merciful, and spare. Oh, what would this earth be were it all in all, and what were life if ending in the grave? Faith, thou art the crystal key opening to the spirit the glorious vision of immortality, bidding the trusting heart, when sick and weary of the dark deeds and ruthless spoilers of this lovely earth, rest on thy downy wings, and seek for peace and comfort there.
"Who waits?" demanded the king, as his pen ceased in its task.
"Sir Stephen Fitzjohn, my liege, sent by the Earl of Berwick with the warrant, for which he waits."
"He need wait no longer then, for it is there. Two hours before noon the traitor dies; we give him grace till then, that our good subjects of Berwick may take warning by his fate, and our bird in the cage witness the end of the gallant so devoted to her cause. Bid the knight begone, my Lord of Arundel; he hath too long waited our pleasure. Ha! whom have we here? who craves admittance thus loudly?" he added, observing, as the earl lifted the hangings to depart, some bustle in the ante-room. "Who is it so boldly demanding speech with us?"
"Her Highness the Princess Joan, Countess of Gloucester, please you, my liege," replied the chamberlain; "she will not take denial."
"Is it so hard a thing for a daughter to gain admittance to a father, even though he be a sovereign?" interrupted the princess, who, attended only by a single page bearing her train, advanced within the chamber, her firm and graceful deportment causing the lords to fall back on either side, and give her passage, though the expression of their monarch's countenance denoted the visit was unwelcome.
"Humbly and earnestly I do beseech your grace's pardon for this over-bold intrusion," she said, bending one knee before him; "but indeed my business could not be delayed. My liege and father, grant me but a few brief minutes. Oh, for the sake of one that loved us both, the sainted one now gone to heaven, for the memory of whom thou didst once bless me with fonder love than thou gavest to my sisters, because my features bore her stamp, my king, my father, pardon me and let me speak!"
"Speak on," muttered the king, passing his hand over his features, and turning slightly from her, if there were emotion, to conceal it. "Thou hast, in truth, been over-bold, yet as thou art here, speak on. What wouldst thou?"
"A boon, a mighty boon, most gracious father; one only thou canst grant, one that in former years thou wouldst have loved me for the asking, and blessed me by fulfilment," she said, as she continued to kneel; and by her beseeching voice and visible emotion effectually confining the attention of the courtiers, now assembled in a knot at the farther end of the apartment, and preventing their noticing the deportment of the page who had accompanied her; he was leaning against a marble pillar which supported the canopy raised over the king's couch, his head bent on his breast, the short, thick curls which fell over his forehead concealing his features; his hands, too, crossed on his breast, convulsively clenched the sleeves of his doublet, as if to restrain the trembling which, had any one been sufficiently near, or even imagined him worthy of a distant glance, must have been observable pervading his whole frame.
"A boon," repeated the king, as the princess paused, almost breathless with her own emotion; "a mighty boon! What can the Countess of Gloucester have to ask of me, that it moves her thus? Are we grown so terrible that even our own children tremble ere they speak? What is this mighty boon? we grant not without hearing."
"'Tis the boon of life, my liege, of life thou canst bestow. Oh, while in this world thou rulest, viceregent of the King of kings on high, combining like Him justice and mercy, in the government of his creatures, oh! like, Him, let mercy predominate over justice; deprive not of life, in the bloom, the loveliness of youth! Be merciful, my father, oh, be merciful! forgive as thou wouldst be forgiven—grant me the life I crave!"
Urged on by emotion, the princess had scarcely heard the suppressed interjection of the king which her first words had occasioned, and she scarcely saw the withering sternness which gathered on his brow.
"Thou hast in truth learnt oratory, most sapient daughter," he said, bitterly; "thou pleadest well and flowingly, yet thou hast said not for whom thou bearest this marvellous interest—it can scarce be for a traitor? Methinks the enemies of Edward should be even such unto his children."
"Yet 'tis for one of these mistaken men I plead, most gracious sovereign," resumed Joan, intimidated not by his sarcasm. "Oh, my father, the conqueror's triumph consists not in the number of rebellious heads that fall before him—not in the blood that overflows his way; magnanimity, mercy, will conquer yet more than his victorious sword. Traitor as he seem, have mercy on Nigel Bruce; oh, give—"
"Mercy on a Bruce! May the thunder of heaven blast me when I show it!" burst furiously from Edward's lips, as he started upon his couch and gazed on his suppliant child with eyes that seemed absolutely to blaze in wrath. "Mercy on a branch of that house which has dared defy me, dared to insult my power, trample on my authority, upraised the standard of rebellion, and cost me the lives of thousands of my faithful subjects! Mercy on him, the daring traitor, who, even in his chains, has flung redoubled insult and treason into our very teeth! Mercy—may the God of heaven deny me all mercy when I show it unto him!"
"Oh, no, no, my father! My father, in mercy speak not such terrible words!" implored the princess, clinging to his robe. "Call not the wrath of heaven on thy head; think of his youth, the temptations that have beset him, the difficult task to remain faithful when all other of his house turned astray. Mistaken as he hath been, as he is, have mercy. Compel him to prove, to feel, to acknowledge thou art not the tyrant he hath been taught to deem thee; exile, imprisonment, all—any thing, but death. Oh, do not turn from me; be thyself, the good, the magnanimous Edward of former days, have mercy on thy foe!"
"I tell thee, never! by every saint in heaven, I tell thee, never!" shouted the king. "I will hear no more; begone, lest I deem my own child part and parcel of the treasons formed against me. Trouble me not with these vain prayers. I will not pardon, I have sworn it; begone, and learn thy station better than to plead for traitors. Thy husband braved me once; beware, lest in these pleadings I hear his voice again. I tell him and thee that ere to-morrow's noon be passed the soul of Nigel Bruce shall stand in judgment; not another day, not another hour he lives to blast me with the memory of his treason. The warrant hath been signed, and is on its way to Berwick, to give his body to the hangman and his soul to Satan—his death is sealed."
"Oh, no, no, no!" shrieked a voice of sudden anguish, startling all who heard, and even Edward, by its piteous tones, and the form of a page suddenly fell prostrate before the monarch. "Mercy, mercy! for the love of God, have mercy!" he struggled to articulate, but there was no sound save a long and piercing shriek, and the boy lay senseless on the ground.
"Ha! by St. George, beardest thou me with traitors in my very palace, before my very eyes?" exclaimed the angry monarch, as his astonished courtiers gathered round. "Put him in ward; away with him, I say!"
"Pardon me, your highness, but this is needless," interposed the princess, with a calm majesty, that subdued even the irritation of her father, and undauntedly waving back the courtiers, although perfectly sensible of the imminent danger in which she was placed. "If there be blame, let it be visited on me; this poor child has been ill and weakly from many causes, terrified, almost maddened, by sounds, and sights of blood. I deemed him perfectly recovered, or he had not attended me here. I pray your grace permit his removal to my apartments."
The king laid a heavy hand on his daughter's arm as she stood beside him, and fixed a gaze on her face that would have terrified any less noble spirit into a betrayal of the truth; but firm in her own integrity, in her own generous purpose, she calmly and inquiringly returned his gaze.
"Go to, thou art a noble wench, though an over-bold and presuming one," he said, in a much mollified tone, for there was that in the dauntless behavior of his daughter which found an echo in his heart even now, deadened as it was to aught of gentle feeling, and he was glad of this interruption to entreaties which, resolved not to grant, had lashed him into fury, while her presence made him feel strangely ashamed. "Do as thou wilt with thine own attendants; but be advised, tempt not thine own safety again; thou hast tried us sore with thy ill-advised entreaties, but we forgive thee, on condition they are never again renewed. Speak not, we charge thee. What ho! Sir Edmund Stanley," he called aloud, and the chamberlain appeared at the summons. "Here, let this boy be carefully raised and borne according to the pleasure of his mistress. See, too, that the Countess of Gloucester be conducted with due respect to her apartments. Begone!" he added, sternly, as the eyes of Joan still seemed to beseech mercy; "I will hear no more—the traitor dies!"
The shades of advancing night had already appeared to have enwrapped the earth some hours, when Nigel Bruce was startled from an uneasy slumber by the creaking sounds of bolts and bars announcing the entrance of some one within the dungeon. The name of his beloved, his devoted Agnes, trembled on his lips, but fearful of betraying her to unfriendly ears, ho checked himself, and started up, exclaiming, "Who comes?" No answer was vouchsafed, but the dim light of a lamp, placed by the intruder on the floor, disclosed a figure wrapped from head to foot in the shrouding mantle of the time, not tall, but appearing a stout muscular person, banishing on the instant Nigel's scarcely-formed hope that it was the only one he longed to see.
"What wouldst thou?" he said, after a brief pause. "Doth Edward practise midnight murder? Speak, who art thou?"
"Midnight murder, thou boasting fool; I love thee not well enough to cheat the hangman of his prey," replied a harsh and grating voice, which, even without the removal of the cloak, would have revealed to Nigel's astonished ears the Earl of Buchan. "Ha! I have startled thee—thou didst not know the deadly enemy of thy accursed race!"
"I know thee now, my Lord of Buchan," replied the young man, calmly; "yet know I not wherefore thou art here, save to triumph over the fallen fortunes of thy foe; if so, scorn on—I care not. A few brief hours, and all of earth and earthly feeling is at rest."
"To triumph—scorn! I had scarce travelled for petty satisfaction such as that, when to-morrow sees thee in the hangman's hands, the scorn of thousands! Hath Buchan no other work with thee, thinkest thou? dost thou affirm thou knowest naught for which he hath good cause to seek thee?"
"Earl of Buchan, I dare affirm it," answered Nigel, proudly; "I know of naught to call for words or tones as these, save, perchance, that the love and deep respect in which I hold thine injured countess, my friendship for thy murdered son, hath widened yet more the breach between thy house and mine—it may be so; yet deem not, cruel as thou art, I will deny feelings in which I glory, at thy bidding. An thou comest to reproach me with these things, rail on, they affect me as little as thy scorn."
"Hadst thou said love for her they call my daughter, thou hadst been nearer the mark," retorted the earl, fury rapidly gaining possession of heart and voice; "but thou art too wise, too politic for that."
"Aye," retorted Nigel, after a fearful struggle with himself, "aye, thou mayest well add love for Agnes of Buchan, as well as friendship for her brother. Thinkest thou I would deny it—hide it? little dost thou know its thrilling, its inspiring power; little canst thou know how I glory in it, cherish, linger on it still. But wherefore speak thus to thee, thou man of wickedness and blood. I love thy pure and spotless child, rejoice that thou didst so desert, so utterly neglect her, that thou couldst no more leave a shadow on her innocent heart than a cloud upon her way. I love her, glory in that love, and what is it to thee?"
"What is it to me? that a child of the house of Comyn dare hold commune with a Bruce; that thou hast dared to love a daughter of my house, aye, to retain her by thy side a willing mistress, when all others of her sex forsook thee—what is it to me? Did not to-morrow give thee to a traitor's doom, thy blood should answer thee; but as it is, villain and slave, give her to me—where is her hiding-place? speak, or the torture shall wring it from thee."
"Thinkest thou such threats will in aught avail thee?" calmly replied Nigel. "Thou knowest not the Bruce. Agnes is no longer a Comyn, no longer a subject to thy guardianship. The voice of God, the rites at the altar's foot, have broken every link, save that which binds her to her husband. She is mine, before God and man is mine—mine own faithful and lawful wife!"
"Thou liest, false villain!" furiously retorted Buchan. "The church shall undo these bonds, shall give her back to the father she has thus insulted. She shall repent, repent with tears of blood, her desertion of her race. Canst thou protect her in death, thou fool—canst thou still cherish and save her, thinkest thou, when the hangman hath done his work?"
"Aye, even then she will be cherished, loved for Nigel's sake, and for her own; there will be faithful friends around her to protect her from thee still, tyrant! Thou canst not break the bonds that bind us; thou hast done no father's part. Forsaken and forgotten, thy children owe thee no duty, no obedience; thou canst bring forward no plea to persecute thy child. In life and in death she is mine, mine alone; the power and authority thou hast spurned so long can no longer be assumed; the love, the obedience thou didst never heed, nay, trampled on, hath been transferred to one who glories in them both. She is in safety—slay, torture as thou wilt, I tell thee no more." Fettered, unarmed, firm, undauntedly erect, stood Nigel Bruce, gazing with curling lip and flashing eyes upon his foe. The foam had gathered on the earl's lip, his hand, clenching his sword, had trembled with passion as Nigel spoke, He sought to suppress that rage, to remember a public execution would revenge him infinitely more than a blow of his sword, but he had been too long unused to control; lashed into ungovernable fury by the demeanor of Nigel, even more than by his words, the sword flashed from its scabbard, was raised, and fell—but not upon his foe, for the Earl of Gloucester suddenly stood between them.
"Art thou mad, or tired of life, my Lord of Buchan?" he said. "Knowest thou not thou art amenable to the law, an thou thus deprivest justice of her victim? Shame, shame, my lord; I deemed thee not a midnight murderer."
"Darest thou so speak to me?" replied Buchan, fiercely; "by every fiend in hell, thou shalt answer this! Begone, and meddle not with that which concerneth thee nothing."
"It doth concern me, proud earl," replied Gloucester, standing immediately before Nigel, whose emotion at observing the page by whom he was accompanied, though momentary, must otherwise have been observed. "The person of the prisoner is sacred to the laws of his country, the mandate of his sovereign; on thy life thou darest not injure him—thou knowest that thou darest not. Do thou begone, ere I summon those who, at the mere mention of assault on one condemned, will keep thee in ward till thou canst wreak thy vengeance on naught but clay; begone, I say!"
"I will not," sullenly answered the earl, unwillingly conscious of the truth of his words; "I will not, till he hath answered me. Once more," he added, turning to Nigel with a demoniac scowl, "where is she whom thou hast dared to call thy wife? answer me, or as there is a hell beneath us, the torture shall wring it from thee!"
"In safety, where thine arm shall never reach her," haughtily answered the young nobleman. "Torture! what wilt thou torture—the senseless clay? Hence—I defy thee! Death will protect me from thy lawless power; death will set his seal upon me ere we meet again."
The earl muttered a deep and terrible oath, and then he strode away, coming in such violent contact against the slight and almost paralyzed form of Gloucester's page as he stood in the doorway, as nearly to throw him to the ground. Nigel sprung forward, but was held back with a grasp of iron by the Earl of Gloucester, nor did he relinquish his hold till Buchan had passed through the doorway, till the heavy hinges had firmly closed again, and the step of the departing earl had entirely faded in distance.
"Now, then, we are safe," he said; "thank heaven!" but his words were scarcely heard, for the page had bounded within the extended arms of Nigel, had clung so closely to his heart, he could feel nothing, see nothing, save that slender form; could hear nothing but those deep, agonized sobs, which are so terrible when unaccompanied by the relief of tears. For a while Nigel could not speak—he could not utter aught of comfort, for he felt it not; that moment was the bitterness of death.
"Torture! did he not speak of torture? will he not come again?" were the words that at length fell, shudderingly, from the lips of Agnes. "Nigel, Nigel, if it must be, give me up; he cannot inflict aught more of misery now."
"Fear not, lady; he dare not," hastily rejoined Gloucester. "The torture dare not be administered without consent of Edward, and that now cannot be obtained; he will not have sufficient—" time, he was going to say, but checked himself; for the agonized look of Agnes told him his meaning was more than sufficiently understood. "Nigel," he added, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder, "Nigel, my noble, gallant friend—for so I will call thee, though I sat in judgment on thee, aye, and tacitly acquiesced in thy sentence—shrink not, oh, shrink not now! I saw not a quiver on thy lip, a pallor on thy cheek, nay, nor faltering in thy step, when they read a doom at which I have marked the bravest blench; oh, let not, that noble spirit fail thee now!"
"Gloucester, it shall not!" he said, with suddenly regained firmness, as supporting Agnes with his right arm he convulsively wrung the hand of his friend with the other. "It was but the sight of this beloved one, the thought—no matter, it is over. Agnes, my beloved, my own, oh, look on me; speak, tell me all that hath befallen thee since they tore thee from me, and filled my soul with darker dread for thee than for myself. To see thee with this noble earl is enough to know how heavy a burden of gratitude I owe him, which thou, sweetest, must discharge. Yet speak to me, beloved; tell me all, all."
Emulating his calmness, remembering even at that moment her promise not to unman him in the moment of trial by vain repinings, Agnes complied with his request. Her tale was frequently interrupted by those terrible sobs, which seemed to threaten annihilation; but Nigel could gather from it so much of tenderness and care on the part of the princess, that the deepest gratitude filled his heart, and spoke in his impassioned words.
"Tell her, oh, tell her, if the prayers of the dying can in aught avail her, the blessedness of heaven shall be hers even upon earth!" he exclaimed, gazing up in the earl's face with eyes that spoke his soul. "Oh, I knew her not, when in former years I did but return her kindness with silence and reserve; I saw in her little more than the daughter of Edward. Tell her, on my knees I beseech her pardon for that wrong; in my last prayers I shall breathe her name."
"And wherefore didst thou go with her?" he continued, on Agnes narrating the scene between the princess and the king. "Alas! my gentle one, hadst thou not endured enough, that thou wouldst harrow up thy soul by hearing the confirmation of my doom from the tyrant's own ruthless lips—didst dream of pardon? dearest, no, thou couldst not."
"Nigel, Nigel, I did, even at that moment, though they told me thou wert condemned, that nothing could save thee; though the princess besought me almost on her knees to spare myself this useless trial, I would not listen to her. I would not believe that all was hopeless; I dreamed still, still of pardon, that Edward would listen to his noble child, would forgive, and I thought, even if she failed, I would so plead he must have mercy, he would listen to me and grant my prayer. I did dream of pardon, but it was vain, vain! Nigel, Nigel, why did my voice fail, my eye grow dim? I might have won thy pardon yet."
"Beloved, thou couldst not," he answered, mournfully. "Mine own sweet Agnes, take comfort, 'tis but a brief farewell; we shall meet where war and blood and death can never enter more."
"I know it, Oh, I know it," she sobbed; "but to part thus, to lose thee, and by such a death, oh, it is horrible, most horrible!"
"Nay, look not on it thus, beloved; there is no shame even in this death, if there be no shame in him who dies."
"Shame!" she repeated; "couldst think I could couple aught of shame with thee, my own? even this dark fate is noble when borne by such as thee."
Nigel held her closer to his heart, and for his sole answer pressed a quivering kiss upon her cheek. Gloucester, who had been in earnest commune with the sentinel without the door, now returned, and informed him that the soldier, who was well known to him and who much disliked his present watch, had willingly consented that the page (whom Gloucester had represented as a former attendant of Sir Nigel's, though now transferred to his service) should remain with his former master, on condition that the earl would come for him before the priests and others who were to attend him to the scaffold entered the dungeon, as this departure from the regular prison discipline, shown as it was to one against whom the king was unusually irritated, might cost him his head. Gloucester had promised faithfully, and he offered them the melancholy option of parting now, or a few sad hours hence.
"Let me, do let me stay; Nigel, my husband, send me not from thee now!" exclaimed Agnes, sinking at his feet and clasping his knees. "I will not weep, nor moan, nor in aught afflict thee. Nigel, dearest Nigel, I will not leave thee now."
"But is it wise, is it well, my best beloved? think, if in the deep anguish of to-morrow thy disguise be penetrated, thy sex discovered, and thy cruel father claim thee, dragging thee even from the protection of the princess—oh, the bitterness of death were doubled then! Thou thinkest but of me, mine own, but thy safety, thy future peace is all now left for me."
"Safety, peace—oh, do not, do not mock me, Nigel—where are they for poor Agnes, save in her husband's grave? What is life now, that thou shouldst seek to guard it? no, no, I will abide by thee, thou shalt not send me hence."
"But to-morrow, lady, to-morrow," interposed Gloucester, with deep commiseration. "I would not, from any selfish fear, shorten by one minute the few sad hours ye may yet pass together, but bethink ye, I dare not promise to shield thee from the horrors of to-morrow, for I cannot. Fearful scenes and sounds may pass before thee; thou mayest come in contact with men from whom thou wilt shrink in horror, and though thine own safety be of little worth, remember the betrayal of thy sex and rank may hurl down the royal vengeance on the head of thy protectress, daughter of Edward though she be. Canst thou be firm—wilt thou, canst thou await the morrow?"
"Yes," answered Agnes, the wildness of her former accents subsiding into almost solemnity; "the safety of thy noble countess shall not be hazarded through me. Leave me with my husband, add but this last mercy to the many thou hast showered on me, and the blessing of God will rest on thee and thy noble wife forever."
She raised his hand to her lips, and Gloucester, much affected, placed hers in her husband's, and wrung them convulsively together. "We shall meet again," was all he trusted his voice to utter, and departed.
The hours waned, each one finding no change in the position of those loving ones. The arm of Agnes twined around the neck of her beloved, her brow leaned against his bosom, her left hand clasped his right, and his left arm, though fettered, could yet fold that slender waist, could yet draw her closer to him, with an almost unconscious pressure; his lips repeatedly pressed that pale brow, which only moved from its position to lift up her eyes at his entreaty in his face, and he would look on those features, lovely still, despite their attenuation and deep sorrow, gaze at them with an expression that, spite of his words of consoling love, betrayed that the dream of earth yet lingered; he could not close his eyes on her without a thrill of agony, sharper than the pang of death. But the enthusiast and the patriot spoke not at that hour only of himself, or that dearer self, the only being he had loved. He spoke of his country, aye, and less deplored the chains which bound her then, than with that prophetic spirit sometimes granted to the departing, dilated on her future glory. He conjured Agnes, for his sake, to struggle on and live; to seek his brother and tell him that, save herself, Nigel's last thought, last prayer was his; that standing on the brink of eternity, the mists of the present had rolled away, he saw but the future—Scotland free, and Robert her beloved and mighty king.
"Bid him not mourn for Nigel," he said; "bid him not waver from his glorious purpose, because so many of his loved and noble friends must fall—their blood is their country's ransom; tell him, had I a hundred lives, I would have laid them down for him and for my country as gladly, as unhesitatingly as the one I now resign; and tell him, dearest, how I loved him to the last, how the recollection of his last farewell, his fervent blessing lingered with me to the end, giving me strength to strive for him and die, as becomes his brother; tell him I glory in my death—it has no shame, no terror, for it is for him and Scotland. Wilt thou remember all this, sweet love? wilt thou speak to him these words?"
"Trust me I will, all, all that thou hast said; they are written here," placing her hand on her heart, "here, and they will not leave me, even if all else fail."
"And thou wilt say to him, mine own, that Nigel besought his love, his tenderness for thee," he continued, losing the enthusiasm of the patriot in the tenderness of the husband; "tell him I look to him in part to discharge the debt of love, of gratitude I owe to thee; to guard thee, cherish thee as his own child. Alas! alas! I speak as if thou must reach him, and yet, beset with danger, misery, as thou art, how may this be?"
"Fear not for me; it shall be, my husband. I will do thy bidding, I will seek my king," she said, for when comfort failed for him, she sought to give it. "Hast forgotten Dermid's words? He would be near me when I needed him, and he will be, my beloved, I doubt him not."
"Could I but think so, could I but know that he would be near to shield thee, oh, life's last care would be at an end, said Nigel, earnestly; and then for some time that silence, more eloquent, more fraught with feeling in such an hour than the most impassioned words, fell on them both. When again he spoke, it was on a yet more holy theme; the thoughts, the dreams of heaven, which from boyhood had been his, now found vent in words and tones, which thrilled to the inmost spirit of his listener, and lingered there, when all other sense had fled. He had lived in an era of darkness. Revelation in its doctrines belonged to the priests alone; faith and obedience demanded by the voice of man alone, were all permitted to the laity, and spirits like Nigel's consequently formed a natural religion, in which they lived and breathed, hallowing the rites which they practised, giving scope and glory to their faith. He pictured the world, on whose threshold he now stood, pictured it, not with a bold unhallowed hand, but as the completion, the consummation of all those dim whisperings of joy, and hope, and wisdom, which had engrossed him below—the perfection of that beauty, that loveliness, in the material and immaterial, he had yearned for in vain on earth.
"And this world of incomparable unshadowed loveliness awaits me," he said, the superstition of the age mingling for the moment with thoughts which seemed to mark him a century beyond his compeers; "purchased by that single moment of suffering called death. It is mine, my beloved, and shall be thine; and oh, when we meet there, how trivial will seem the dark woes and boding cares of earth! I have told thee the vision of my vigil, Agnes, my beloved; again I have seen that blessed spirit, aye, and there was no more sadness on his pale brow, naught, naught of earth—spiritualized, etherealized. He hovered over my sleep, and with a smile beckoned me to the glorious world he inhabits; he seemed to call me, to await me, and then the shrouding clouds on which he lay closed thicker and thicker round him, till naught but his celestial features beamed on me. Agnes, dearest, best, think of me thus, as blessed eternally, unchangeably, as awaiting thee to share that blessedness, not as one lost to thee, beloved; and peace, aye, joy e'en yet shall smile for thee."
"Nigel, Nigel, are there such things for the desolate, the lone?" murmured Agnes, raising her pale brow and looking despairingly in his face. "Oh, I will think on thee, picture thee in thy thrice-glorified home, but it will be with all of mortal clinging to me still, and the wild yearnings to come to thee will banish all of peace. Speak not such words to thy poor weak Agnes, my beloved. I will struggle on to bear thy message to my sovereign; there lies my path when thou art gone, darkness envelops it when that goal is gained—I have no future now, save that which gives me back to thee."
He could not answer, and then again there was silence, broken only by the low voice of prayer. They knelt together on the cold stones, he raised her cold hands with his in supplication; he prayed for mercy, pardon for himself, for comfort, strength for her; he prayed for his country and her king, her chained and sorrowing sons, and the soft, liquid star of morning, gloaming forth through heavy masses of murky clouds directly on them as they knelt, appeared an angel's answer. The dawn broke; bluer and bluer became the small and heavily-barred casement, clearer and clearer grew the damp walls of the dungeons, and morning, in its sunshine and gladness, laughed along the earth. Closer and closer did Agnes cling to that noble heart, but she spoke no word. "He tarries long—merciful heaven, grant he be not detained too late!" she heard her husband murmur, as to himself, as time waned and Gloucester came not, and she guessed his thoughts.
"I care not," she answered, in a voice so hollow he shuddered; "I will go with thee, even to the scaffold."
But Gloucester, true to his promise, came at length; he was evidently anxious and disturbed, and a few hurried words told how the Earl of Berwick had detained him in idle converse, as if determined to prevent any private interview with the prisoner; even now the officers and priests were advancing to the dungeons, their steps already reverberated through the passages, and struck on the heart of Agnes as a bolt of ice. "I had much, much I wished to say, but even had I time, what boots it now? Nigel, worthy brother of him I so dearly loved, aye, even now would die to serve, fear not for the treasure thou leavest to my care; as there is a God above us, I will guard her as my sister! They come—farewell, thou noble heart, thou wilt leave many a foe to mourn thee!" The voice of the earl quivered with emotion. Nigel convulsively pressed his extended hand, and then he folded Agnes in his arms; he kissed her lips, her brow, her cheek, he parted those clustering curls to look again and yet again upon her face—pale, rigid as sculptured marble. She uttered no sound, she made no movement, but consciousness had not departed; the words of Gloucester on the previous night rung in her ears, demanding control, and mechanically she let her arms unloose their convulsive grasp of Nigel, and permitted the earl gently to lead her to the door, but ere it opened, she turned again to look on Nigel. He stood, his hands clasped in that convulsive pressure of agony, his every feature working with the mighty effort at control with the last struggle of the mortal shell. With one faint yet thrilling cry she bounded back, she threw herself upon his swelling bosom, her lips met his in one last lingering kiss, and Gloucester tore her from his arms. They passed the threshold, another minute and the officers, and guard, and priest stood within the dungeon, and a harsh, rude voice bade the confessor haste to shrive the prisoner, for the hour of execution was at hand.
Bearing the slight form of the supposed page in his arms, Gloucester hastily threaded the passages leading from the dungeon to the postern by which he had intended to depart. His plan had been to rejoin his attendants and turn his back upon the city of Berwick ere the execution could take place; a plan which, from his detention, he already found was futile. The postern was closed and secured, and he was compelled to retrace his steps to a gate he had wished most particularly to avoid, knowing that it opened on a part of the court which, from its commanding a view of the scaffold, he justly feared would be crowded. He had paused but to speak one word of encouragement to Agnes, who, with a calmness appalling from the rigidity of feature which accompanied it, now stood at his side; he bade her only hold by his cloak, and he hoped speedily to lead her to a place of safety. She heard him and made a sign of obedience. They passed the gate unquestioned, traversed an inner court, and made for the great entrance of the castle; there, unhappily, their progress was impeded. The scaffold, by order of Edward, had been erected on the summit of a small green ascent exactly opposite the prison of the Countess of Buchan, and extending in a direct line about half a quarter of a mile to the right of the castle gates, which had been flung wide open, that all the inhabitants of Berwick might witness the death of a traitor. Already the courts and every vacant space was crowded. A sea of human heads was alone visible, nay, the very buttresses and some pinnacles of the castle, which admitted any footing, although of the most precarious kind, had been appropriated. The youth, the extraordinary beauty, and daring conduct of the prisoner had excited an unusual sensation in the town, and the desire to mark how such a spirit would meet his fate became irresistibly intense. Already it seemed as if there could be no space for more, yet numbers were still pouring in, not only most completely frustrating the intentions of the Earl of Gloucester, but forcing him, by the pressure of multitudes, with them towards the scaffold. In vain he struggled to free himself a passage; in vain he haughtily declared his rank and bade the presumptuous serfs give way. Some, indeed, fell back, but uselessly, for the crowds behind pushed on those before, and there was no retreating, no possible means of escaping from that sight of horror which Gloucester had designed so completely to avoid. In the agony of disappointment, not a little mixed with terror as to its effects, he looked on his companion. There was not a particle of change upon her countenance; lips, cheek, brow, were indeed bloodless as marble, and as coldly still; her eyes were fascinated on the scaffold, and they moved not, quivered not. Even when the figure of an aged minstrel, in the garb of Scotland, suddenly stood between them and the dread object of their gaze, their expression changed not; she placed her hand in his, she spoke his name to her conductor, but it was as if a statue was suddenly endowed with voice and motion, so cold was the touch of that hand, so sepulchral was that voice; she motioned him aside with a gesture that compelled obedience, and again she looked upon the scaffold. The earl welcomed the old man gladly, for the tale of Agnes had already prepared him to receive him, and to rely on his care to convey her back to Scotland. Engrossed with his anxiety for her, and whenever that permitted him, speaking earnestly to the old man, Gloucester remained wholly unconscious of the close vicinity of one he was at that moment most desirous to avoid.
The Earl of Buchan, in the moment of ungovernable rage, had indeed flung himself on horseback and galloped from the castle the preceding night, intending to seek the king, and petition that the execution might be deferred till the torture had dragged the retreat of Agnes from Nigel's lips. The cool air of night, however, had had the effect of so far dissipating the fumes of passion, as to convince him that it would be well-nigh impossible to reach Carlisle, obtain an interview with Edward at such an unseasonable hour, and return to Berwick in sufficient time for the execution of his diabolical scheme. He let the reins fall on his horse's neck, to ponder, and finally made up his mind it was better to let things take their course, and the sentence of the prisoner proceed without interruption; a determination hastened by the thought that should he die under the torture, all the ignominy and misery of a public execution would be eluded. The night was very dark and misty, the road in some parts passing through, woods and morasses, and the earl, too much engrossed with his own dark thoughts to attend to his path, lost the track and wandered round and round, instead of going forward. This heightened not the amiability of his previous mood; but until dawn his efforts to retrace his steps or even discover where he was were useless. The morning, however, enabled him to reach Berwick, which he did just as the crowds were pouring into the castle-yard, and the heavy toll of the bell announced the commencement of that fatal tragedy. He hastily dismounted and mingled with the populace, they bore him onward through another postern to that by which the other crowds had impelled Gloucester. Finding the space before them already occupied, these two human streams, of course, met and conjoined in the centre; and the two earls stood side by side. Gloucester, as we have said, wholly unconscious of Buchan's vicinity, and Buchan watching his anxious and sorrowful looks with the satisfaction of a fiend, revelling in his being thus hemmed in on all sides, and compelled to witness the execution of his friend. He watched him closely as he spoke with the minstrel, but tried in vain to distinguish what they said. He looked on the page too, and with some degree of wonder, though he believed it only mortal terror which made him look thus, natural in so young a child; but afterwards that look was only too fatally recalled.
Sleepless and sad had been that long night to another inmate of Berwick Castle, as well as to Nigel and his Agnes. It was not till the dawn had broken that the Countess of Buchan had sunk into a deep though troubled slumber, for it was not till then the confused sounds of the workmen employed in erecting the scaffold had ceased. She knew not for whom it was upraised, what noble friend and gallant patriot would there be sacrificed. She would not, could not believe it was for Nigel; for when his name arose in her thoughts, it was shudderingly repelled, and with him came the thought of her child—where, oh, where was she?—what would be her fate? The tolling of the bell awoke her from the brief trance of utter unconsciousness into which, from exhaustion, she had fallen. She glanced once beneath her. The crowds, the executioner at his post, the guard already round the scaffold, too truly told the hour was at hand, and though her heart turned sick with apprehension, and she felt as if to know the worst were preferable to the hour of suspense, she could not look again, and she would have sought the inner chamber, and endeavor to close both ears and eyes to all that was passing without, when the Earl of Berwick suddenly entered, and harshly commanded her to stir not from the cage.
"It is your sovereign's will, madam, that you witness the fate of the traitor so daring in your cause," he said, as with a stern grasp he forced her to the grating and retained his hold upon her arm; "that you may behold in his deserved fate the type of that which will at length befall the yet blacker traitor of his name. It is fitting so loyal a patriot as thyself should look on a patriot's fate, and profit thereby."
"Aye, learn how a patriot can die—how, when his life may no more benefit his country and his kin, he may serve them in his death," calmly and proudly she answered. "It is well; perchance, when my turn cometh, I may thank thy master for the lesson now rudely forced upon me. The hour will come when the blood that he now so unjustly sheds shall shriek aloud for vengeance. On me let him work his will—I fear him not."
"Be silent, minion! I listen not to thy foul treason," said the earl, hoarse with suppressed passion at the little effect his sovereign's mandate produced, when he had hoped to have enforced it midst sobs and tears; and she was silent, for her eye had caught one face amidst the crowd that fascinated its gaze, and sent back the blood, which had seemed to stagnate when the idea that it was indeed Nigel now about to suffer had been thus rudely thrust upon her—sent it with such sudden revulsion through its varied channels, that it was only with a desperate struggle she retained her outward calmness, and then she stood, to the eye of Berwick, proud, dignified, collected, seemingly so cold, that he doubted whether aught of feeling could remain, or marvelled if the mandate of Edward had indeed power to inflict aught of pain. But within—oh, the veriest tyrant must have shuddered, could he have known the torture there; she saw, she recognized her child; she read naught but madness in that chiselled gaze; she saw at a glance there was no escaping from beholding, to the dreadful end, the fate of her beloved; before, behind, on every side, the crowds pressed round, yet from the slightly elevated position of the scaffold, failing to conceal it from her gaze. The Earl of Gloucester she perceived close at her side, as if protecting her; but if indeed she was under his care, how came she on such a spot, at such a time?—did he know her sex, or only looked on her as a favored page of Nigel's, and as such protected? Yet would not the anguish of that hour betray her not alone to him, but to that dark and cruel man whom she also marked beside her, and who, did he once know her, would demand the right of a father, to give her to his care? and oh, how would that right be exercised! would the murderer of his son, his heir, have pity on a daughter? But it would be a vain effort to picture the deep anguish of that mother's heart, as in that dread moment she looked upon her child, knowing, feeling her might of grief, as if it had been her own; well-nigh suffocated with the wild yearning to fold her to her maternal bosom, to bid her weep there, to seek to comfort, to soothe, by mingling her tears with hers, to protect, to hide her misery from all save her mother's eye—to feel this till every pulse throbbed as to threaten her with death, and yet to breathe no word, to give no sign that such things were, lest she should endanger that precious one yet more. She dared not breathe one question of the many crowding on her heart, she could but gaze and feel. She had thought, when, they told her that her boy was dead, that she had caused his death, there was little more of misery fate could weave, but at that moment even Alan was forgotten. It was her own wretchedness she had had then to bear, for he was at rest; but now it was the anguish of that dearer self, her sole remaining child—and oh, a mother's heart can better bear its individual woes than those that crash a daughter to the earth.
A sudden rush amidst the crowd, where a movement could take place, the heavy roll of muffled drums, and the yet deeper, more wailing toll of the funeral bell, announced that the prisoner had left the dungeon, and irresistibly the gaze of the countess turned from her child to seek him; perchance it was well, for the preservation of her composure, that the intervening crowd prevented her beholding him till he stood upon the scaffold, for hardly could she have borne unmoved the sight of that noble and gallant form—beloved alike as the friend of her son, the betrothed of her daughter, the brother of her king—degraded of all insignia of rank, chained to the hurdle, and dragged as the commonest, the vilest criminal, exposed to the mocking gaze of thousands, to the place of execution. She saw him not thus, and therefore she knew not wherefore the features of Agnes had become yet more rigid, bore yet more the semblance of chiselled marble. He stood at length upon the scaffold, as calmly majestic in his bearing as if he had borne no insult, suffered no indignity. His beautiful hair had been arranged with care on either side his face, and still fell in its long, rich curls, about his throat; and so beautiful, so holy was the expression of his perfect features, that the assembled crowds hushed their very breath in admiration and in awe; it seemed as if the heaven, on whose threshold he stood, had already fixed its impress on his brow. Every eye was upon him, and all perceived that holy calmness was for one brief minute disturbed; but none, save three of those who marked it, knew or even guessed the cause. The countess had watched his glance, as at first composedly it had wandered over the multitude beneath and around him, and she saw it rest on that one face, which, in its sculptured misery, stood alone amidst thousands, and she alone perceived the start of agony that sight occasioned, but speedily even that emotion passed; he looked from that loved face up to the heaven on which his hopes were fixed, in whose care for her he trusted—and that look was prayer. She saw him as he knelt in prayer, undisturbed by the clang of instruments still kept up around him; she saw him rise, and then a deadly sickness crept over her every limb, a thick mist obscured her sight, sense seemed on the point of deserting her, when it was recalled by a sound of horror—a shriek so wild, so long, so thrilling, the rudest spirit midst those multitudes shrunk back appalled, and crossed themselves in terror. On one ear it fell with a sense of agony almost equal to that from whence it came; the mother recognized the voice, and feeling, sight, hearing, as by an electric spell, returned. She looked forth again, and though her eye caught the noble form of Nigel Bruce yet quivering in the air, she shrunk not, she sickened not, for its gaze sought her child; she had disappeared from the place she had occupied. She saw the Earl of Gloucester making a rapid way through the dispersing crowds, a sudden gust blew aside his wrapping-cloak, the face of her child was exposed to her view, there was a look of death upon her brow; and if the Earl of Berwick had lingered to note whether indeed this scene of horror would pass unnoticed, unfelt by his prisoner, he was gratified at length, for Isabella of Buchan lay senseless on her prison floor.
"And she is in safety, Gilbert?" inquired the Princess Joan, the evening of the day following the execution, lifting her eyes, swimming in tears, to her husband's face. They were sitting alone in their private apartments, secured from all intruders by a page stationed in the ante-room; and the earl had been relating some important particulars of the preceding day.
"I trust in heaven she is, and some miles ere now on her road to Scotland," was his answer. "I fear for nothing save for the beautiful mind that fragile shell contains; alas! my Joan, I fear me that has gone forever!"
"Better, oh better, then, that fainting-fit had indeed been death," she said, "that the thread of life had snapped than twisted thus in madness. Yet thou sayest her purpose seemed firm, her intellect clear, in her intense desire to reach Scotland. Would this be, thinkest thou, were they disordered?"
"I think yes; for hadst thou seen, as I, the expression of countenance, the unearthly calmness with which this desire was enforced, the constant, though unconscious, repetition of words as these, 'to the king, to the king, my path lies there, he bade me seek him; perchance he will be there to meet me,' thou too wouldst feel that, when that goal is gained, her husband's message given, sense must fail or life itself depart. But once for a few brief minutes I saw that calmness partly fail, and I indulged in one faint hope she would be relieved by tears. She saw old Dermid gaze on her and weep; she clung to his neck, her features worked convulsively, and her voice was choked and broken, as she said, We must not tarry, Dermid, we must not wait to weep and moan; I must seek King Robert while I can. There is a fire on my brain and heart, which will soon scorch up all memory but one; I must not wait till it has reached his words, and burned them up too—oh, let us on at once;' but the old man's kindly words had not the effect I hoped, she only shook her head, and then, as if the horrible recollection of the past flashed back, a convulsive shuddering passed through her frame, and when she raised her face from her hand its marble rigidity had returned."
"Alas! alas! poor sufferer," exclaimed the princess, in heartfelt sorrow; "I fear indeed, if such things be, there is little hope of reason. I would thou hadst conveyed her here, perchance the soothing and sympathy of one of her own sex had averted this evil."
"T doubt, my kind Joan," replied her husband; "thy words had such beneficial power before, because hope had still possession of her breast, she hoped to the very last, aye, even when she so madly went with thee to Edward; now that is over; hope is crushed, when despair has risen. Thou couldst not have soothed; it would have been but wringing thy too kind heart, and exposing her to other and heightened evils." The princess looked up inquiringly. "Knowest thou not Buchan hath discovered that his daughter remained with Nigel Bruce, as his engaged bride, at Kildrummie, and is even now seeking her retreat, vowing she shall repent with tears of blood her connection with a Bruce?"
"I did not indeed; how came this?"
"How, I know not, save that it was reported Buchan had left the court, on a mission to the convent where the Countess of Carrick and her attendants are immured, and in all probability learnt this important fact from them. I only know that at the instant I entered the prisoner's dungeon, Buchan was demanding, at the sword's point, the place of her retreat, incited to the deadliest fury at Nigel's daring avowal that Agnes was his wife."