The month of March, rough and stormy as it is in England, would perhaps be deemed mild and beautiful as May by those accustomed to meet and brave its fury in the eastern Highlands, nor would the evening on which our tale commences bely its wild and fitful character.
The wind howled round the ancient Tower of Buchan, in alternate gusts of wailing and of fury, so mingled with the deep, heavy roll of the lashing waves, that it was impossible to distinguish the roar of the
one element from the howl of the other. Neither tree, hill, nor wood intercepted the rushing gale, to change the dull monotony of its gloomy tone. The Ythan, indeed, darted by, swollen and turbid from continued storms, threatening to overflow the barren plain it watered, but its voice was undistinguishable amidst the louder wail of wind and ocean. Pine-trees, dark, ragged, and stunted, and scattered so widely apart that each one seemed monarch of some thirty acres, were the only traces of vegetation for miles round. Nor were human habitations more abundant; indeed, few dwellings, save those of such solid masonry as the Tower of Buchan, could hope to stand scathless amidst the storms that in winter ever swept along the moor.
No architectural beauty distinguished the residence of the Earls of Buchan; none of that tasteful decoration peculiar to the Saxon, nor of the more sombre yet more imposing style introduced by the Norman, and known as the Gothic architecture.
Originally a hunting-lodge, it had been continually enlarged by succeeding lords, without any regard either to symmetry or proportion, elegance or convenience; and now, early in the[Pg 8] year 1306, appeared within its outer walls as a most heterogeneous mass of ill-shaped turrets, courts, offices, and galleries, huddled together in ill-sorted confusion, though presenting to the distant view a massive square building, remarkable only for a strength and solidity capable of resisting alike the war of elements and of man.
Without all seemed a dreary wilderness, but within existed indisputable signs of active life. The warlike inhabitants of the tower, though comparatively few in number, were continually passing to and fro in the courts and galleries, or congregating in little knots, in eager converse. Some cleansing their armor or arranging banners; others, young and active, practising the various manœuvres of mimic war; each and all bearing on their brow that indescribable expression of anticipation and excitement which seems ever on the expectant of it knows not what. The condition of Scotland was indeed such as to keep her sons constantly on the alert, preparing for defence or attack, as the insurging efforts of the English or the commands of their lords should determine. From the richest noble to the veriest serf, the aged man to the little child, however contrary their politics and feelings, one spirit actuated all, and that spirit was war—war in all its deadliest evils, its unmitigated horrors, for it was native blood which deluged the rich plains, the smiling vales, and fertile hills of Scotland.
Although the castle of Buchan resembled more a citadel intended for the accommodation of armed vassals than the commodious dwelling of feudal lords, one turret gave evidence, by its internal arrangement, of a degree of refinement and a nearer approach to comfort than its fellows, and seeming to proclaim that within its massive walls the lords of the castle were accustomed to reside. The apartments were either hung with heavy tapestry, which displayed, in gigantic proportions, the combats of the Scots and Danes, or panelled with polished oak, rivalling ebony in its glossy blackness, inlaid with solid silver. Heavy draperies of damask fell from the ceiling to the floor at every window, a pleasant guard, indeed, from the constant winds which found entrance through many creaks and corners of the Gothic casements, but imparting a dingy aspect to apartments lordly in their dimensions, and somewhat rich in decoration.[Pg 9]
The deep embrasures of the casements were thus in a manner severed from the main apartment, for even when the curtains were completely lowered there was space enough to contain a chair or two and a table. The furniture corresponded in solidity and proportion to the panelling or tapestry of the walls; nor was there any approach even at those doubtful comforts already introduced in the more luxurious Norman castles of South Britain.
The group, however, assembled in one of these ancient rooms needed not the aid of adventitious ornament to betray the nobility of birth, and those exalted and chivalric feelings inherent to their rank. The sun, whose stormy radiance during the day had alternately deluged earth and sky with fitful yet glorious brilliance, and then, burying itself in the dark masses of overhanging clouds, robed every object in deepest gloom, now seemed to concentrate his departing rays in one living flood of splendor, and darting within the chamber, lingered in crimson glory around the youthful form of a gentle girl, dyeing her long and clustering curls with gold. Slightly bending over a large and cumbrous frame which supported her embroidery, her attitude could no more conceal the grace and lightness of her childlike form, than the glossy ringlets the soft and radiant features which they shaded. There was archness lurking in those dark blue eyes, to which tears seemed yet a stranger; the clear and snowy forehead, the full red lip, and health-bespeaking cheek had surely seen but smiles, and mirrored but the joyous light which filled her gentle heart. Her figure seemed to speak a child, but there was a something in that face, bright, glowing as it was, which yet would tell of somewhat more than childhood—that seventeen summers had done their work, and taught that guileless heart a sterner tale than gladness.
A young man, but three or four years her senior, occupied an embroidered settle at her feet. In complexion, as in the color of his hair and eyes, there was similarity between them, but the likeness went no further, nor would the most casual observer have looked on them as kindred. Fair and lovely as the maiden would even have been pronounced, it was perhaps more the expression, the sweet innocence that characterized her features which gave to them their charm; but in the young man there was infinitely more than this, though effem[Pg 10]inate as was his complexion, and the bright sunny curls which floated over his throat, he was eminently and indescribably beautiful, for it was the mind, the glorious mind, the kindling spirit which threw their radiance over his perfect features; the spirit and mind which that noble form enshrined stood apart, and though he knew it not himself, found not their equal in that dark period of warfare and of woe. The sword and lance were the only instruments of the feudal aristocracy; ambition, power, warlike fame, the principal occupants of their thoughts; the chase, the tourney, or the foray, the relaxation of their spirits. But unless that face deceived, there was more, much more, which charactered the elder youth within that chamber.
A large and antique volume of Norse legends rested on his knee, which, in a rich, manly voice, he was reading aloud to his companion, diversifying his lecture with remarks and explanations, which, from the happy smiles and earnest attention of the maiden, appeared to impart the pleasure intended by the speaker. The other visible inhabitant of the apartment was a noble-looking boy of about fifteen, far less steadily employed than his companions, for at one time he was poising a heavy lance, and throwing himself into the various attitudes of a finished warrior; at others, brandished a two-handed sword, somewhat taller than himself; then glancing over the shoulder of his sister—for so nearly was he connected with the maiden, though the raven curls, the bright flashing eye of jet, and darker skin, appeared to forswear such near relationship—criticising her embroidery, and then transferring his scrutiny to the strange figures on the gorgeously-illuminated manuscript, and then for a longer period listening, as it were, irresistibly to the wild legends which that deep voice was so melodiously pouring forth.
"It will never do, Agnes. You cannot embroider the coronation of Kenneth MacAlpine and listen to these wild tales at one and the same time. Look at your clever pupil, Sir Nigel; she is placing a heavy iron buckler on the poor king's head instead of his golden crown." The boy laughed long and merrily as he spoke, and even Sir Nigel smiled; while Agnes, blushing and confused, replied, half jestingly and half earnestly, "And why not tell me of it before, Alan? you must have seen it long ago."[Pg 11]
"And so I did, sweet sister mine; but I wished to see the effect of such marvellous abstraction, and whether, in case of necessity, an iron shield would serve our purpose as well as a jewelled diadem."
"Never fear, my boy. Let but the king stand forth, and there will be Scottish men enow and willing to convert an iron buckler into a goodly crown;" and as Sir Nigel spoke his eyes flashed, and his whole countenance irradiated with a spirit that might not have been suspected when in the act of reading, but which evidently only slept till awakened by an all-sufficient call. "Let the tyrant Edward exult in the possession of our country's crown and sceptre—he may find we need not them to make a king; aye, and a king to snatch the regal diadem from the proud usurper's brow—the Scottish sceptre from his blood-stained hands!"
"Thou talkest wildly, Nigel," answered the lad, sorrowfully, his features assuming an expression of judgment and feeling beyond his years. "Who is there in Scotland will do this thing? who will dare again the tyrant's rage? Is not this unhappy country divided within itself, and how may it resist the foreign foe?"
"Wallace! think of Wallace! Did he not well-nigh wrest our country from the tyrant's hands? And is there not one to follow in the path he trod—no noble heart to do what he hath done?"
"Nigel, yes. Let but the rightful king stand forth, and were there none other, I—even I, stripling as I am, with my good sword and single arm, even with the dark blood of Comyn in my veins, Alan of Buchan, would join him, aye, and die for him!"
"There spoke the blood of Duff, and not of Comyn!" burst impetuously from the lips of Nigel, as he grasped the stripling's ready hand; "and doubt not, noble boy, there are other hearts in Scotland bold and true as thine; and even as Wallace, one will yet arise to wake them from their stagnant sleep, and give them freedom."
"Wallace," said the maiden, fearfully; "ye talk of Wallace, of his bold deeds and bolder heart, but bethink ye of his fate. Oh, were it not better to be still than follow in his steps unto the scaffold?"
"Dearest, no; better the scaffold and the axe, aye, even the[Pg 12] iron chains and hangman's cord, than the gilded fetters of a tyrant's yoke. Shame on thee, sweet Agnes, to counsel thoughts as these, and thou a Scottish maiden." Yet even as he spoke chidingly, the voice of Nigel became soft and thrilling, even as it had before been bold and daring.
"I fear me, Nigel, I have but little of my mother's blood within my veins. I cannot bid them throb and bound as hers with patriotic love and warrior fire. A lowly cot with him I loved were happiness for me."
"But that cot must rest upon a soil unchained, sweet Agnes, or joy could have no resting there. Wherefore did Scotland rise against her tyrant—why struggle as she hath to fling aside her chains? Was it her noble sons? Alas, alas! degenerate and base, they sought chivalric fame; forgetful of their country, they asked for knighthood from proud Edward's hand, regardless that that hand had crowded fetters on their fatherland, and would enslave their sons. Not to them did Scotland owe the transient gleam of glorious light which, though extinguished in the patriot's blood, hath left its trace behind. With the bold, the hardy, lowly Scot that gleam had birth; they would be free to them. What mattered that their tyrant was a valiant knight, a worthy son of chivalry: they saw but an usurper, an enslaver, and they rose and spurned his smiles—aye, and they will rise again. And wert thou one of them, sweet girl; a cotter's wife, thou too wouldst pine for freedom. Yes; Scotland will bethink her of her warrior's fate, and shout aloud revenge for Wallace!"
Either his argument was unanswerable, or the energy of his voice and manner carried conviction with them, but a brighter glow mantled the maiden's cheek, and with it stole the momentary shame—the wish, the simple words that she had spoken could be recalled.
"Give us but a king for whom to fight—a king to love, revere, obey—a king from whose hand knighthood were an honor, precious as life itself, and there are noble hearts enough to swear fealty to him, and bright swords ready to defend his throne," said the young heir of Buchan, as he brandished his own weapon above his head, and then rested his arms upon its broad hilt, despondingly. "But where is that king? Men speak of my most gentle kinsman Sir John Comyn, called the Red—bah! The sceptre were the same jewelled bauble in his[Pg 13] impotent hand as in his sapient uncle's; a gem, a toy, forsooth, the loan of crafty Edward. No! the Red Comyn is no king for Scotland; and who is there besides? The rightful heir—a cold, dull-blooded neutral—a wild and wavering changeling. I pray thee be not angered, Nigel; it cannot be gainsaid, e'en though he is thy brother."
"I know it Alan; know it but too well," answered Nigel, sadly, though the dark glow rushed up to cheek and brow. "Yet Robert's blood is hot enough. His deeds are plunged in mystery—his words not less so; yet I cannot look on him as thou dost, as, alas! too many do. It may be that I love him all too well; that dearer even than Edward, than all the rest, has Robert ever been to me. He knows it not; for, sixteen years my senior, he has ever held me as a child taking little heed of his wayward course; and yet my heart has throbbed beneath his word, his look, as if he were not what he seemed, but would—but must be something more."
"I ever thought thee but a wild enthusiast, gentle Nigel, and this confirms it. Mystery, aye, such mystery as ever springs from actions at variance with reason, judgment, valor—with all that frames the patriot. Would that thou wert the representative of thy royal line; wert thou in Earl Robert's place, thus, thus would Alan kneel to thee and hail thee king!"
"Peace, peace, thou foolish boy, the crown and sceptre have no charm for me; let me but see my country free, the tyrant humbled, my brother as my trusting spirit whispers he shall be, and Nigel asks no more."
"Art thou indeed so modest, gentle Nigel—is thy happiness so distinct from self? thine eyes tell other tales sometimes, and speak they false, fair sir?"
Timidly, yet irresistibly, the maiden glanced up from her embroidery, but the gaze that met hers caused those bright eyes to fall more quickly than they were raised, and vainly for a few seconds did she endeavor so to steady her hand as to resume her task. Nigel was, however, spared reply, for a sharp and sudden bugle-blast reverberated through the tower, and with an exclamation of wondering inquiry Alan bounded from the chamber. There was one other inmate of that apartment, whose presence, although known and felt, had, as was evident, been no restraint either to the employments or the sentiments of the two youths and their companion. Their conversation[Pg 14] had not passed unheeded, although it had elicited no comment or rejoinder. The Countess of Buchan stood within one of those deep embrasures we have noticed, at times glancing towards the youthful group with an earnestness of sorrowing affection that seemed to have no measure in its depth, no shrinking in its might; at others, fixing a long, unmeaning, yet somewhat anxious gaze on the wide plain and distant ocean, which the casement overlooked.
It was impossible to look once on the countenance of Isabella of Buchan, and yet forbear to look again, The calm dignity, the graceful majesty of her figure seemed to mark her as one born to command, to hold in willing homage the minds and inclinations of men; her pure, pale brow and marble cheek—for the rich rose seemed a stranger there—the long silky lash of jet, the large, full, black eye, in its repose so soft that few would guess how it could flash fire, and light up those classic features with power to stir the stagnant souls of thousands and guide them with a word. She looked in feature as in form a queen; fitted to be beloved, formed to be obeyed. Her heavy robe of dark brocade, wrought with thick threads of gold, seemed well suited to her majestic form; its long, loose folds detracting naught from the graceful ease of her carriage. Her thick, glossy hair, vying in its rich blackness with the raven's wing, was laid in smooth bands upon her stately brow, and gathered up behind in a careless knot, confined with a bodkin of massive gold. The hood or coif, formed of curiously twisted black and golden threads, which she wore in compliance with the Scottish custom, that thus made the distinction between the matron and the maiden, took not from the peculiarly graceful form of the head, nor in any part concealed the richness of the hair. Calm and pensive as was the general expression of her countenance, few could look upon it without that peculiar sensation of respect, approaching to awe, which restrained and conquered sorrow ever calls for. Perchance the cause of such emotion was all too delicate, too deeply veiled to be defined by those rude hearts who were yet conscious of its existence; and for them it was enough to own her power, bow before it, and fear her as a being set apart.
Musingly she had stood looking forth on the wide waste; the distant ocean, whose tumbling waves one moment gleamed in living light, at others immersed in inky blackness, were[Pg 15] barely distinguished from the lowering sky. The moaning winds swept by, bearing the storm-cloud on their wings; patches of blue gleamed strangely and brightly forth; and, far in the west, crimson and amber, and pink and green, inlaid in beautiful mosaic the departing luminary's place of rest.
"Alas, my gentle one," she had internally responded to her daughter's words, "if thy mother's patriot heart could find no shield for woe, nor her warrior fire, as thou deemest it, guard her from woman's trials, what will be thy fate? This is no time for happy love, for peaceful joys, returned as it may be; for—may I doubt that truthful brow, that knightly soul (her glance was fixed on Nigel)—yet not now may the Scottish knight find rest and peace in woman's love. And better is it thus—the land of the slave is no home for love."
A faint yet a beautiful smile, dispersing as a momentary beam the anxiety stamped on her features, awoke at the enthusiastic reply of Nigel. Then she turned again to the casement, for her quick eye had discerned a party of about ten horsemen approaching in the direction of the tower, and on the summons of the bugle she advanced from her retreat to the centre of the apartment.
"Why, surely thou art but a degenerate descendant of the brave Macduff, mine Agnes, that a bugle blast should thus send back every drop of blood to thy little heart," she said, playfully. "For shame, for shame! how art thou fitted to be a warrior's bride? They are but Scottish men, and true, methinks, if I recognize their leader rightly. And it is even so."
"Sir Robert Keith, right welcome," she added, as, marshalled by young Alan, the knight appeared, bearing his plumed helmet in his hand, and displaying haste and eagerness alike in his flushed features and soiled armor.
"Ye have ridden long and hastily. Bid them hasten our evening meal, my son; or stay, perchance Sir Robert needs thine aid to rid him of this garb of war. Thou canst not serve one nobler."
"Nay, noble lady, knights must don, not doff their armor now. I bring ye news, great, glorious news, which will not brook delay. A royal messenger I come, charged by his grace my king—my country's king—with missives to his friends, calling on all who spurn a tyrant's yoke—who love their land,[Pg 16] their homes, their freedom—on all who wish for Wallace—to awake, arise, and join their patriot king!"
"Of whom speakest thou, Sir Robert Keith? I charge thee, speak!" exclaimed Nigel, starting from the posture of dignified reserve with which he had welcomed the knight, and springing towards him.
"The patriot and the king!—of whom canst thou speak?" said Alan, at the same instant. "Thine are, in very truth, marvellous tidings, Sir Knight; an' thou canst call up one to unite such names, and worthy of them, he shall not call on me in vain."
"Is he not worthy, Alan of Buchan, who thus flings down the gauntlet, who thus dares the fury of a mighty sovereign, and with a handful of brave men prepares to follow in the steps of Wallace, to the throne or to the scaffold?"
"Heed not my reckless boy, Sir Robert," said the countess, earnestly, as the eyes of her son fell beneath the knight's glance of fiery reproach; "no heart is truer to his country, no arm more eager to rise in her defence."
"The king! the king!" gasped Nigel, some strange over-mastering emotion checking his utterance. "Who is it that has thus dared, thus—"
"And canst thou too ask, young sir?" returned the knight, with a smile of peculiar meaning. "Is thy sovereign's name unknown to thee? Is Robert Bruce a name unknown, unheard, unloved, that thou, too, breathest it not?"
"My brother, my brave, my noble brother!—I saw it, I knew it! Thou wert no changeling, no slavish neutral; but even as I felt, thou art, thou wilt be! My brother, my brother, I may live and die for thee!" and the young enthusiast raised his clasped hands above his head, as in speechless thanksgiving for these strange, exciting news; his flushed cheek, his quivering lip, his moistened eye betraying an emotion which seemed for the space of a moment to sink on the hearts of all who witnessed it, and hush each feeling into silence. A shout from the court below broke that momentary pause.
"God save King Robert! then, say I," vociferated Alan, eagerly grasping the knight's hand. "Sit, sit, Sir Knight; and for the love of heaven, speak more of this most wondrous tale. Erewhile, we hear of this goodly Earl of Carrick at Edward's court, doing him homage, serving him as his own English[Pg 17] knight, and now in Scotland—aye, and Scotland's king. How may we reconcile these contradictions?"
"Rather how did he vanish from the tyrant's hundred eyes, and leave the court of England?" inquired Nigel, at the same instant as the Countess of Buchan demanded, somewhat anxiously—
"And Sir John Comyn, recognizes he our sovereign's claim? Is he amongst the Bruce's slender train?"
A dark cloud gathered on the noble brow of the knight, replacing the chivalric courtesy with which he had hitherto responded to his interrogators. He paused ere he answered, in a stern, deep voice—
"Sir John Comyn lived and died a traitor, lady. He hath received the meed of his base treachery; his traitorous design for the renewed slavery of his country—the imprisonment and death of the only one that stood forth in her need."
"And by whom did the traitor die?" fiercely demanded the young heir of Buchan. "Mother, thy cheek is blanched; yet wherefore? Comyn as I am, shall we claim kindred with a traitor, and turn away from the good cause, because, forsooth, a traitorous Comyn dies? No; were the Bruce's own right hand red with the recreant's blood—he only is the Comyn's king."
"Thou hast said it, youthful lord," said the knight, impressively. "Alan of Buchan, bear that bold heart and patriot sword unto the Bruce's throne, and Comyn's traitorous name shall be forgotten in the scion of Macduff. Thy mother's loyal blood runs reddest in thy veins, young sir; too pure for Comyn's base alloy. Know, then, the Bruce's hand is red with the traitor's blood, and yet, fearless and firm in the holy justice of his cause, he calls on his nobles and their vassals for their homage and their aid—he calls on them to awake from their long sleep, and shake off the iron yoke from their necks; to prove that Scotland—the free, the dauntless, the unconquered soil, which once spurned the Roman power, to which all other kingdoms bowed—is free, undaunted, and unconquered still. He calls aloud, aye, even on ye, wife and son of Comyn of Buchan, to snap the link that binds ye to a traitor's house, and prove—though darkly, basely flows the blood of Macduff in one descendant's veins, that the Earl of Fife refuses homage and allegiance to his sovereign—in ye it rushes free, and bold, and loyal still."[Pg 18]
"And he shall find it so. Mother, why do ye not speak? You, from whose lips my heart first learnt to beat for Scotland my lips to pray that one might come to save her from the yoke of tyranny. You, who taught me to forget all private feud, to merge all feeling, every claim, in the one great hope of Scotland's freedom. Now that the time is come, wherefore art thou thus? Mother, my own noble mother, let me go forth with thy blessing on my path, and ill and woe can come not near me. Speak to thy son!" The undaunted boy flung himself on his knee before the countess as he spoke. There was a dark and fearfully troubled expression on her noble features. She had clasped her hands together, as if to still or hide their unwonted trembling; but when she looked on those bright and glowing features, there came a dark, dread vision of blood, and the axe and cord, and she folded her arms around his neck, and sobbed in all a mother's irrepressible agony.
"My own, my beautiful, to what have I doomed thee!" she cried. "To death, to woe! aye, perchance, to that heaviest woe—a father's curse! exposing thee to death, to the ills of all who dare to strike for freedom. Alan, Alan, how can I bid thee forth to death? and yet it is I have taught thee to love it better than the safety of a slave; longed, prayed for this moment—deemed that for my country I could even give my child—and now, now—oh God of mercy, give me strength!"
She bent down her head on his, clasping him to her heart, as thus to still the tempest which had whelmed it. There is something terrible in that strong emotion which sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly overpowers the calmest and most controlled natures. It speaks of an agony so measureless, so beyond the relief of sympathy, that it falls like an electric spell on the hearts of all witnesses, sweeping all minor passions into dust before it. Little accustomed as was Sir Robert Keith to sympathize in such emotions, he now turned hastily aside, and, as if fearing to trust himself in silence, commenced a hurried detail to Nigel Bruce of the Earl of Carrick's escape from London, and his present position. The young nobleman endeavored to confine his attention to the subject, but his eyes would wander in the direction of Agnes, who, terrified at emotions which in her mother she had never witnessed before, was kneeling in tears beside her brother.
A strong convulsive shuddering passed over the bowed frame[Pg 19] of Isabella of Buchan; then she lifted up her head, and all traces of emotion had passed from her features. Silently she pressed her lips on the fair brows of her children alternately, and her voice faltered not as she bade them rise and heed her not.
"We will speak further of this anon, Sir Robert," she said, so calmly that the knight started. "Hurried and important as I deem your mission, the day is too far spent to permit of your departure until the morrow; you will honor our evening meal, and this true Scottish tower for a night's lodging, and then we can have leisure for discourse on the weighty matters you have touched upon."
She bowed courteously, as she turned with a slow, unfaltering step to leave the room. Her resumed dignity recalled the bewildered senses of her son, and, with graceful courtesy, he invited the knight to follow him, and choose his lodging for the night.
"Agnes, mine own Agnes, now, indeed, may I win thee," whispered Nigel, as tenderly he folded his arm round her, and looked fondly in her face. "Scotland shall be free! her tyrants banished by her patriot king; and then, then may not Nigel Bruce look to this little hand as his reward? Shall not, may not the thought of thy pure, gentle love be mine, in the tented field and battle's roar, urging me on, even should all other voice be hushed?"
"Forgettest thou I am a Comyn, Nigel? That the dark stain of traitor, of disloyalty is withering on our line, and wider and wider grows the barrier between us and the Bruce?" The voice of the maiden was choked, her bright eyes dim with tears.
"All, all I do forget, save that thou art mine own sweet love; and though thy name is Comyn, thy heart is all Macduff. Weep not, my Agnes; thine eyes were never framed for tears. Bright times for us and Scotland are yet in store!"