"Buchan! the Countess of Buchan, sayest thou, Athelbert? nay, 'tis scarce possible," said a fair and noble-looking woman, still in the bloom of life, though early youth had passed, pausing on her way to the queen's apartment, to answer some information given by the senior page.
"Indeed, madam, 'tis even so; she arrived but now, escorted by Sir Robert Keith and his followers, in addition to some fifty of the retainers of Buchan."[Pg 42]
th she lodging within the palace?"
"Yes, madam; an it please you, I will conduct you to her, 'tis but a step beyond the royal suite."
She made him a sign of assent, and followed him slowly, as if musingly.
"It is strange, it is very strange," she thought, "yet scarcely so; she was ever in heart and soul a patriot, nor has she seen enough of her husband to change such sentiments. Yet, for her own sake, perchance it had been better had she not taken this rash step; 'tis a desperate game we play, and the fewer lives and fortunes wrecked the better."
Her cogitations were interrupted by hearing her name announced in a loud voice by the page, and finding herself in presence of the object of her thoughts.
"Isabella, dearest Isabella, 'tis even thine own dear self. I deemed the boy's tale well-nigh impossible," was her hasty exclamation, as with a much quicker step she advanced towards the countess, who met her half-way, and warmly returned her embrace, saying as she did so—
"This is kind, indeed, dearest Mary, to welcome me so soon; 'tis long, long years since we have met; but they have left as faint a shadow on thy affections as on mine."
"Indeed, thou judgest me truly, Isabella. Sorrow, methinks, doth but soften the heart and render the memory of young affections, youthful pleasures, the more vivid, the more lasting: we think of what we have been, or what we are, and the contrast heightens into perfect bliss that which at the time, perchance, we deemed but perishable joy."
"Hast thou too learnt such lesson, Mary? I hoped its lore was all unknown to thee."
"It was, indeed, deferred so long, so blessedly, I dared to picture perfect happiness on earth; but since my husband's hateful captivity, Isabella, there can be little for his wife but anxiety and dread. But these—are these thine?" she added, gazing admiringly and tearfully on Agnes and Alan, who had at their mother's sign advanced from the embrasure, where they had held low yet earnest converse, and gracefully acknowledged the stranger's notice. "Oh, wherefore bring them here, my friend?"
"Wherefore, lady?" readily and impetuously answered Alan; "art thou a friend of Isabella of Buchan, and asketh[Pg 43] wherefore? Where our sovereign is, should not his subjects be?"
"Thy mother's friend and sovereign's sister, noble boy, and yet I grieve to see thee here. The Bruce is but in name a king, uncrowned as yet and unanointed. His kingdom bounded by the confines of this one fair county, struggling for every acre at the bright sword's point."
"The greater glory for his subjects, lady," answered the youth. "The very act of proclaiming himself king removes the chains of Scotland, and flings down her gage. Fear not, he shall be king ere long in something more than name."
"And is it thus a Comyn speaks?" said the Lady Campbell. "Ah, were the idle feuds of petty minds thus laid at rest, bold boy, thy dreams might e'en be truth; but knowest thou, young man—knowest thou, Isabella, the breach between the Comyn and the Bruce is widened, and, alas! by blood?"
"Aye, lady; but what boots it? A traitor should have no name, no kin, or those who bear that name should wash away their race's stain by nobler deeds of loyalty and valor."
"It would be well did others think with thee," replied Lady Campbell; "yet I fear me in such sentiments the grandson of the loyal Fife will stand alone. Isabella, dearest Isabella," she added, laying her hand on the arm of the countess, and drawing her away from her children, "hast thou done well in this decision? hast thou listened to the calmer voice of prudence as was thy wont? hast thou thought on all the evils thou mayest draw upon thy head, and upon these, so lovely and so dear?"
"Mary, I have thought, weighed, pondered, and yet I am here," answered the countess, firmly, yet in an accent that still bespoke some inward struggle. "I know, I feel all, all that thou wouldst urge; that I am exposing my brave boy to death, perchance, by a father's hand, bringing him hither to swear fealty, to raise his sword for the Bruce, in direct opposition to my husband's politics, still more to his will; yet, Mary, there are mutual duties between a parent and a child. My poor boy has ever from his birth been fatherless. No kindly word, no glowing smile has ever met his infancy, his boyhood. He scarce can know his father—the love, the reverence of a son it would have been such joy to teach. Left to my sole care, could I instil sentiments other than those a father's lips be[Pg 44]stowed on me? Could I instruct him in aught save love, devotion to his country, to her rights, her king? I have done this so gradually, my friend, that for the burst of loyalty, of impetuous gallantry, which answered Sir Robert Keith's appeal, I was well nigh unprepared. My father, my noble father breathes in my boy; and oh, Mary, better, better far lose him on the battle-field, struggling for Scotland's freedom, glorying in his fate, rejoicing, blessing me for lessons I have taught, than see him as my husband, as my brother—alas! alas! that I should live to say it—cringing as slaves before the footstool of a tyrant and oppressor. Had he sought it, had he loved—treated me as a wife, Mary, I would have given my husband all—all a woman's duty—all, save the dictates of my soul, but even this he trampled on, despised, rejected; and shall I, dare I then forget, oppose the precepts of that noble heart, that patriot spirit which breathed into mine the faint reflection of itself?—offend the dead, the hallowed dead, my father—the heart that loved me?"
She paused, in strong, and for the moment overpowering, emotion. The clear, rich tones had never faltered till she spoke of him beloved even in death—faltered not, even when she spoke of death as the portion of her child; it was but the quivering of lip and eye by which the anguish of that thought could have been ascertained. Lady Campbell clasped her hand.
"Thou hast in very truth silenced me, my Isabella," she said; "there is no combating with thoughts as these. Thine is still the same noble soul, exalted mind that I knew in youth: sorrow and time have had no power on these."
"Save to chasten and to purify, I trust," rejoined the countess, in her own calm tone. "Thrown back upon my own strength, it must have gathered force, dear Mary, or have perished altogether. But thou speakest, methinks, but too despondingly of our sovereign's prospects—are they indeed so desperate?"
"Desperate, indeed, Isabella. Even his own family, with the sole exception of that rash madman, Edward, must look upon it thus. How thinkest thou Edward of England will brook this daring act of defiance, of what he will deem rank apostasy and traitorous rebellion? Aged, infirm as he is now, he will not permit this bold attempt to pass unpunished. The[Pg 45] whole strength of England will be gathered together, and pour its devastating fury on this devoted land. And what to this has Robert to oppose? Were he undisputed sovereign of Scotland, we might, without cowardice, be permitted to tremble, threatened as he is; but confined, surrounded by English, with scarce a town or fort to call his own, his enterprise is madness, Isabella, patriotic as it may be."
"Oh, do not say so, Mary. Has he not some noble barons already by his side? will not, nay, is not Scotland rising to support him? hath he not the hearts, the prayers, the swords of all whose mountain homes and freeborn rights are dearer than the yoke of Edward? and hath he not, if rumor speaks aright, within himself a host—not mere valor alone, but prudence, foresight, military skill—all, all that marks a general?"
"As rumor speaks. Thou dost not know him then?" inquired Lady Campbell.
"How could I, dearest? Hast thou forgotten thy anxiety that we should meet, when we were last together, holding at naught, in thy merry mood, my betrothment to Lord John—that I should turn him from his wandering ways, and make him patriotic as myself? Thou seest, Mary, thy brother needed not such influence."
"Of a truth, no," answered her friend; "for his present partner is a very contrast to thyself, and would rather, by her weak and trembling fears, dissuade him from his purpose than inspire and encourage it. Well do I remember that fancy of my happy childhood, and still I wish it had been so, all idle as it seems—strange that ye never met."
"Nay, save thyself, Mary, thy family resided more in England than in Scotland, and for the last seventeen years the territory of Buchan has been my only home, with little interruption to my solitude; yet I have heard much of late of the Earl of Carrick, and from whom thinkest thou?—thou canst not guess—even from thy noble brother Nigel."
"Nigel!" repeated Lady Mary, much surprised.
"Even so, sweet sister, learning dearer lore and lovelier tales than even Provence could instil; 'tis not the land, it is the heart where poesie dwells," rejoined Nigel Bruce, gayly, advancing from the side of Agnes, where he had been lingering the greater part of the dialogue between his sister and the countess, and[Pg 46] now joined them. "Aye, Mary," he continued, tenderly, "my own land is dearer than the land of song."
"And dear art thou to Scotland, Nigel; but I knew not thy fond dreams and wild visions could find resting amid the desert crags and barren plains of Buchan."
"Yet have we not been idle. Dearest Agnes, wilt thou not speak for me? the viol hath not been mute, nor the fond harp unstrung; and deeper, dearer lessons have thy lips instilled, than could have flowed from fairest lips and sweetest songs of Provence. Nay, blush not, dearest. Mary, thou must love this gentle girl," he added, as he led her forward, and laid the hand of Agnes in his sister's.
"Is it so? then may we indeed be united, though not as I in my girlhood dreamed, my Isabella," said Lady Campbell, kindly parting the clustering curls, and looking fondly on the maiden's blushing face. She was about to speak again, when steps were heard along the corridor, and unannounced, unattended, save by the single page who drew aside the hangings, King Robert entered. He had doffed the armor in which we saw him first, for a plain yet rich suit of dark green velvet, cut and slashed with cloth of gold, and a long mantle of the richest crimson, secured at his throat by a massive golden clasp, from which gleamed the glistening rays of a large emerald; a brooch of precious stones, surrounded by diamonds, clasped the white ostrich feather in his cup, and the shade of the drooping plume, heightened perhaps by the advance of evening, somewhat obscured his features, but there was that in his majestic mien, in the noble yet dignified bearing, which could not for one moment be mistaken; and it needed not the word of Nigel to cause the youthful Alan to spring from the couch where he had listlessly thrown himself, and stand, suddenly silenced and abashed.
"My liege and brother," exclaimed Lady Campbell, eagerly, as she hastily led forward the Countess of Buchan, who sunk at once on her knee, overpowered by the emotion of a patriot, thinking only of her country, only of her sovereign, as one inspired by heaven to attempt her rescue, and give her freedom. "How glad am I that it has fallen on me to present to your grace, in the noble Countess of Buchan, the chosen friend of my girlhood, the only descendant of the line of Macduff worthy to bear that name. Allied as unhappily she is to the family of[Pg 47] Comyn, yet still, still most truly, gloriously, a patriot and loyal subject of your grace, as her being here, with all she holds most dear, most precious upon earth, will prove far better than her friend's poor words."
"Were they most rich in eloquence, Mary, believe me, we yet should need them not, in confirmation of this most noble lady's faithfulness and worth," answered the king, with ready courtesy, and in accents that were only too familiar to the ear of Isabella. She started, and gazed up for the first time, seeing fully the countenance of the sovereign. "Rise, lady, we do beseech you, rise; we are not yet so familiar with the forms of royalty as to behold without some shame a noble lady at our feet. Nay, thou art pale, very pale; thy coming hither hath been too rapid, too hurried for thy strength, methinks; I do beseech you, sit." Gently he raised her, and leading her gallantly to one of the cumbrous couches near them, placed her upon it, and sat down beside her. "Ha! that is well; thou art better now. Knowest thou, Mary, thine office would have been more wisely performed, hadst thou presented me to the Countess of Buchan, not her to me."
"Thou speakest darkly, good my liege, yet I joy to see thee thus jestingly inclined."
"Nay, 'tis no jest, fair sister; the Countess of Buchan and I have met before, though she knew me but as a wild, heedless stripling first, and a moody, discontented soldier afterwards. I owe thee much, gentle lady; much for the night's lodging thy hospitality bestowed, though at the time my mood was such it had no words of courtesy, no softening fancy, even to thyself; much for the kindness thou didst bestow, not only then, but when fate first threw us together; and therefore do I seek thee, lady—therefore would I speak to thee, as the friend of former years, not as the sovereign of Scotland, and as such received by thee." He spoke gravely, with somewhat of sadness in his rich voice. Perhaps it was well for the countess no other answer than a grateful bow was needed, for the sudden faintness which had withdrawn the color from her cheek yet lingered, sufficient to render the exertion of speaking painful.
"Yet pause one moment, my liege," said Nigel, playfully leading Alan forward; "give me one moment, ere you fling aside your kingly state. Here is a young soldier, longing to rush into the very thickest of a fight that may win a golden[Pg 48] spur and receive knighthood at your grace's hand; a doughty spokesman, who was to say a marvellously long speech of duty, homage, and such like, but whose tongue at sight of thee has turned traitor to its cause. Have mercy on him, good my liege; I'll answer that his arm is less a traitor than his tongue."
"We do not doubt it, Nigel, and will accept thy words for his. Be satisfied, young sir, the willing homage of all true men is precious to King Robert. And thou, fair maiden, wilt thou, too, follow thy monarch's fortunes, cloudy though they seem? we read thine answer in thy blushing cheek, and thus we thank thee, maiden."
He threw aside his plumed cap, and gallantly yet respectfully saluted the fair, soft cheek; confused yet pleased, Agnes looked doubtingly towards Nigel, who, smiling a happy, trusting, joyous smile, led her a few minutes apart, whispered some fond words, raised her hand to his lips, and summoning Alan, they left the room together.
"Sir Robert Keith informs me, noble lady," said the king, again addressing Isabella, "that it is your determination to represent, in your own proper person, the ancient line of Duff at the approaching ceremony, and demand from our hands, as such representative, the privilege granted by King Malcolm to your noble ancestor and his descendants, of placing on the sovereign's brow the coronet of Scotland. Is it not so?"
"I do indeed most earnestly demand this privilege, my gracious liege," answered the countess, firmly; "demand it as a right, a glorious right, made mine by the weak and fickle conduct of my brother. Alas! the only male descendant of that line which until now hath never known a traitor."
"But hast thou well considered, lady? There is danger in this act, danger even to thyself."
"My liege, that there is danger threatening all the patriots of Scotland, monarch or serf, male or female, I well know; yet in what does it threaten me more in this act, than in the mere acknowledgment of the Earl of Carrick as my sovereign?"
"It will excite the rage of Edward of England against thyself individually, lady; I know him well, only too well. All who join in giving countenance and aid to my inauguration will be proclaimed, hunted, placed under the ban of traitors, and, if unfortunately taken, will in all probability share the fate of Wallace." His voice became husky with strong emotion.[Pg 49] "There is no exception in his sweeping tyranny; youth and age, noble and serf, of either sex, of either land, if they raise the sword for Bruce and freedom, will fall by the hangman's cord or headsman's axe; and I, alas! must look on and bear, for I have neither men nor power to avert such fate; and that hand which places on my head the crown, death, death, a cruel death, will be the doom of its patriot owner. Think, think on this, and oh, retract thy noble resolution, ere it be too late."
"Is she who gives the crown in greater danger, good my liege, than he who wears it?" demanded the countess, with a calm and quiet smile.
"Nay," he answered, smiling likewise for the moment, "but I were worse than traitor, did I shrink from Scotland in her need, and refuse her diadem, in fear, forsooth, of death at Edward's hands. No! I have held back too long, and now will I not turn back till Scotland's freedom is achieved, or Robert Bruce lies with the slain. Repentance for the past, hope, ambition for the future; a firm heart and iron frame, a steady arm and sober mood, to meet the present—I have these, sweet lady, to fit and nerve me for the task, but not such hast thou. I doubt not thy patriot soul; perchance 'twas thy lip that first awoke the slumbering fire within my own breast, and though a while forgotten, recalled, when again I looked on thee, after Falkirk's fatal battle, with the charge, the solemn charge of Wallace yet ringing in mine ears. Yet, lady, noble lady, tempt not the fearful fate which, shouldst thou fall into Edward's hands, I know too well will be thine own. I dare not promise sure defence from his o'erwhelming hosts: on every side they compass me. I see sorrow and death for all I love, all who swear fealty to me. I shall succeed in the end, for heaven, just heaven will favor the righteous cause; but trouble and anguish must be my lot ere then, and I would save those I can. Remain with us an thou wilt, gratefully I accept the homage so nobly and unhesitatingly tendered; but still I beseech thee, lady, expose not thy noble self to the blind wrath of Edward, as thou surely wilt, if from thy hand I receive my country's crown."
"My liege," answered the countess, in that same calm, quiet tone, "I have heard thee with a deep grateful sense of the noble feeling, the kindly care which dictates thy words; yet[Pg 50] pardon me, if they fail to shake my resolution—a resolution not lightly formed, not the mere excitement of a patriotic moment, but one based on the principles of years, on the firm, solemn conviction, that in taking this sacred office on myself, the voice of the dead is obeyed, the memory of the dead, the noble dead, preserved from stain, inviolate and pure. Would my father have kept aloof in such an hour—refused to place on the brow of Scotland's patriot king the diadem of his forefathers—held back in fear of Edward? Oh! would that his iron hand and loyal heart were here instead of mine; gladly would I lay me down in his cold home and place him at thy side, might such things be: but as it is, my liege, I do beseech thee, cease to urge me. I have but a woman's frame, a woman's heart, and yet death hath no fear for me. Let Edward work his will, if heaven ordain I fall into his ruthless hands; death comes but once, 'tis but a momentary pang, and rest and bliss shall follow. My father's spirit breathes within me, and as he would, so let his daughter do. 'Tis not now a time to depart from ancient forms, my gracious sovereign, and there are those in Scotland who scarce would deem thee crowned, did not the blood of Fife perform that holy office."
"And this, then, noble lady, is thy firm resolve—I may not hope to change it?"
"'Tis firm as the ocean rock, my liege. I do not sue thee to permit my will; the blood of Macduff, which rushes in my veins, doth mark it as my right, and as my right I do demand it." She stood in her majestic beauty, proudly and firmly before him, and unconsciously the king acknowledged and revered the dauntless spirit that lovely form enshrined.
"Lady," he said, raising her hand with reverence to his lips, "do as thou wilt: a weaker spirit would have shrunk at once in terror from the very thought of such open defiance to King Edward. I should have known the mind that framed such daring purpose would never shrink from its fulfilment, however danger threatened; enough, we know thy faithfulness and worth, and where to seek for brave and noble counsel in the hour of need. And now, may it be our privilege to present thee to our queen, sweet lady? We shall rejoice to see thee ever near her person."
"I pray your grace excuse me for this night," answered the countess; "we have made some length of way to-day, and, if it[Pg 51] please you, I would seek rest. Agnes shall supply my place; Mary, thou wilt guard her, wilt thou not?"
"Nay, be mine the grateful task," said the king, gayly taking the maiden's hand, and, after a few words of courtesy, he quitted the chamber, followed by his sister.
There were sounds of mirth and revelry that night in the ancient halls of Scone, for King Robert, having taken upon himself the state and consequence of sovereignty, determined on encouraging the high spirits and excited joyousness of his gallant followers by all the amusements of chivalry which his confined and precarious situation permitted, and seldom was it that the dance and minstrelsy did not echo blithely in the royal suite for many hours of the evening, even when the day had brought with it anxiety and fatigue, and even intervals of despondency. There were many noble dames and some few youthful maidens in King Robert's court, animated by the same patriotic spirit which led their husbands and brothers to risk fortune and life in the service of their country: they preferred sharing and alleviating their dangers and anxieties, by thronging round the Bruce's wife, to the precarious calm and safety of their feudal castles; and light-heartedness and glee shed their bright gleams on these social hours, never clouded by the gloomy shades that darkened the political horizon of the Bruce's fortunes. Perchance this night there was a yet brighter radiance cast over the royal halls, there was a spirit of light and glory in every word and action of the youthful enthusiast, Nigel Bruce, that acted as with magic power on all around; known in the court of England but as a moody visionary boy, whose dreams were all too ethereal to guide him in this nether world, whose hand, however fitted to guide a pen, was all too weak to wield a sword; the change, or we should rather say the apparent change, perceived in him occasioned many an eye to gaze in silent wonderment, and, in the superstition of the time, argue well for the fortunes of one brother from the marvellous effect observable in the countenance and mood of the other.
The hopefulness of youth, its rosy visions, its smiling dreams, all sparkled in his blight blue eye, in the glad, free, ringing joyance of his deep rich voice, his cloudless smiles. And oh, who is there can resist the witchery of life's young hopes, who does not feel the warm blood run quicker through his veins,[Pg 52] and bid his heart throb even as it hath throbbed in former days, and the gray hues of life melt away before the rosy glow of youth, even as the calm cold aspect of waning night is lost in the warmth and loveliness of the infant morn? And what was the magic acting on the enthusiast himself, that all traces of gloom and pensive thought were banished from his brow, that the full tide of poetry within his soul seemed thrilling on his lip, breathing in his simplest word, entrancing his whole being in joy? Scarce could he himself have defined its cause, such a multitude of strong emotions were busy at his heart. He saw not the dangers overhanging the path of the Bruce, he only saw and only felt him as his sovereign, as his brother, his friend, destined to be all that he had hoped, prayed, and believed he would be; willing to accept and return the affection he had so long felt, and give him that friendship and confidence for which he had yearned in vain so long. He saw his country free, independent, unshackled, glorious as of old; and there was a light and lovely being mingling in these stirring visions—when Scotland was free, what happiness would not be his own! Agnes, who flitted before him in that gay scene, the loveliest, dearest object there, clinging to him in her timidity, shrinking from the gaze of the warriors around, respectful as it was, feeling that all was strange, all save him to whom her young heart was vowed—if such exclusiveness was dear to him, if it were bliss to him to feel that, save her young brother, he alone had claim upon her notice and her smile, oh! what would it be when she indeed was all, all indivisibly his own? Was it marvel, then, his soul was full of the joy that beamed forth from his eye, and lip, and brow—that his faintest tone breathed gladness?
There was music and mirth in the royal halls: the shadow of care had passed before the full sunshine of hope; but within that palace wall, not many roods removed from the royal suite, was one heart struggling with its lone agony, striving for calm, for peace, for rest, to escape from the deep waters threatening to overwhelm it. Hour after hour beheld the Countess of Buchan in the same spot, well-nigh in the same attitude; the agonized dream of her youth had come upon her yet once again, the voice whose musical echoes had never faded from her ear, once more had sounded in its own deep thrilling tones, his hand had pressed her own, his eye had met hers, aye, and dwelt[Pg 53] upon her with the unfeigned reverence and admiration which had marked its expression years before; and it was to him her soul had yearned in all the fervidness of loyalty, not to a stranger, as she had deemed him. Loyalty, patriotism, reverence her sovereign claimed, aye, and had received; but now how dare she encourage such emotions towards one it had been, aye, it was her duty to forget, to think of no more? Had her husband been fond, sought the noble heart which felt so bitterly his neglect, the gulf which now divided them might never have existed; and could she still the voice of that patriotism, that loyalty towards a free just monarch, which the dying words of a parent had so deeply inculcated, and which the sentiments of her own heart had increased in steadiness and strength? On what had that lone heart to rest, to subdue its tempest, to give it nerve and force, to rise pure in thought as in deed, unstained, unshaded in its nobleness, what but its own innate purity? Yet fearful was the storm that passed over, terrible the struggle which shook that bent form, as in lowliness and contrition, and agony of spirit, she knelt before the silver crucifix, and called upon heaven in its mercy to give peace and strength—fierce, fierce and terrible; but the agonized cry was heard, the stormy waves were stilled.