The hardships and dangers attendant on King Robert's progress southward, mingled as they were with the very spirit of romance, are so well known to every reader of Scottish history that they must be excluded from our pages, although[Pg 174] a tale of chivalry would seem the very place for their insertion.
The life of no hero, no sovereign, no general, presents us with a parallel to the lone and dreary passage of Loch Lomond. We hear of an ancient and a modern Hannibal
rossing the snowy Alps, but it was at the head of triumphant armies; it was carrying war and victory into an enemy's land, and there was glory in the danger—the glory and pride of successful ambition. But there was greater and truer heroism in the spirit which struggled on when the broad, deep waters of Loch Lomond lay between them and comparative safety; when 'mid falling snow and howling winds he cheered his drooping and exhausted followers by reading aloud a spirit-stirring romance, to which they listened enwrapt and charmed, little imagining their own situation was one of far greater peril, of more exciting romance than any which the volume so vividly described. A leaky boat, which scarcely allowed three men to cross in safety, was their only means of conveyance, and a day and night passed ere the two hundred followers of the Bruce assembled on the opposite side. The cheerful blast of his bugle, which sounded to form them in bands before him on the beach, was answered by one whose unexpected appearance occasioned such joy to the heart of the king, that the exertions both of body and mind of the last few hours were forgotten. It was the Earl of Lennox, who since the fatal battle of Methven had been numbered amongst the dead, and lamented by his royal master with grief as deep as the joy was exceeding which greeted him again. Mutual was the tale of suffering each had to relate, few and faint the hopes and prospects to communicate, but so many were the friends the patriots had lost, that the reappearance of the venerable nobleman infused a new and brighter spirit amid the almost despairing men.
That the Earl of Lennox had found a kind and hospitable home in the dominions of the Lord of the Isles, and received welcome and favor from the chieftain himself, was justly a subject of rejoicing to the fugitive king. Guided by him, the intricacies of their path were smoothed, and they reached their destination in a much shorter time than would otherwise have been the case. Sir Niel Campbell had performed his mission well, and kindness and truth so long unknown, now eagerly[Pg 175] opened their hearths and hearts to the patriot king. Scorning alike the Scottish and English authority, Angus, Lord of the Isles, had formed an independent sovereignty, and now felt pride in receiving in his territories the only sovereign he had felt inclination to revere. The daring heroism, the unshaken spirit of the Bruce, were akin to his own wild, and reckless courage, and had there been no actual claim and right in Robert's pretensions to the crown, Angus would still have declared that he, and he alone, was the sovereign worthy to assume it. All, then, of state and dignity which he could assemble round him were proffered to the king, and had there been less generosity, less chivalric honor in his character King Robert might have passed the winter months in comparative security and comfort.
Angus indeed spoke daringly and slightly of the English force, and had his inmost soul been read, would have joyed had they ventured to attack him, that he might show his skill and bravery in resisting and defending against their united force the sovereign who had confided in his gallantry and honor; but Robert knew better than the rude chieftain the devastating warfare which characterized Edward's efforts at subjection, and his whole soul shrunk from exposing Angus and his true-hearted followers to the utter ruin which, if he were once known to be amongst them, would inevitably ensue. At once to secure his personal concealment, and yet to withdraw from Cantire without in any way offending the high spirit of the island chieftain, Bruce resolved on making the little island of Rathlin the winter refuge of himself and his two hundred followers.
Inhabited by the MacDonalds, who were of course subject to their general chief, though divided from him by the channel, Bruce was still under the generous protection of his friend, and therefore Angus could bring forward no objection to the proposal, save the miserable poverty, the many discomforts of the barren islet, and entreat with all his natural eloquence that King Robert would still remain in the peninsula. The arguments of the king, however, prevailed. A small fleet, better manned than built, was instantly made ready for his service, and Angus himself conveyed the king in his own galley to his destined residence. The aspect of the island, the savage appearance and manner of its inhabitants were indeed such as to[Pg 176] strike despondingly and painfully on the hearts of any less inured to suffering than King Robert and his devoted adherents. To them it was welcome, for they justly felt the eye of Edward could scarcely reach them there. It was a painful alternative to warrior spirits such as theirs that the safety of their country depended on their inaction and concealment; yet as their king, their patriot king, was still amongst them, there was much, much to hope and cherish still. That their gentler friends and relatives were, they hoped and believed, in a place of safety, was a matter of rejoicing, though neither entreaty nor command could persuade the Lady Campbell and her daughter Isoline to accept the proffered hospitality of the island chieftain. It was nothing to them that they were the only females 'mid that warrior train, that many hardships were around them still. Neither Sir Kiel nor the king could resist their pleadings, and ere the sun of spring had shed its influence on the heart of man as well as the hardened earth, there were many who mourned that a separation had taken place, who wished that fatigue and anxiety had still been met together.
Many weeks before King Robert retreated to the island of Rathlin, Sir Nigel Bruce had conducted his precious charge in safety to the castle of Kildrummie, whose feeble garrison gladly flung open their gates to receive them.
It was a strong fortress situated on a circular mount, overhanging the river Don, which at that point ever rushed darkly and stormily along; the mount, though not steep, was full two miles in circumference, from base to brow occupied by the castle, which was erected in that massive yet irregular form peculiar to the architecture of the middle ages. A deep, broad moat or fosse, constantly supplied by the river, defended the castle wall, which ran round the mound, irregularly indeed, for there were indentations and sharp angles, occasioned by the uneven ground, each of which was guarded by a strong turret or tower, rising from the wall. The wall itself was some four-and-twenty feet in height, and nine in thickness, consequently the spaces between the turrets on the top of the wall formed broad level platforms, which in case of a siege were generally kept strongly guarded. Facing the east, and commanding a view of the river and adjacent country, stood the barbacan gate and drawbridge, which latter was further defended by strong oaken doors and an iron portcullis, forming the great gate of the cas[Pg 177]tle wall, and the principal entrance into the fortress. Two towers of immense strength, united by a narrow, dimly-lighted passage, guarded this gate, and on these depended the grate or portcullis, which was lowered or raised by internal machinery. Within the castle wall was the outer ballium or court, containing some small, low-roofed dwellings, the residence of many feudal retainers of the baron. A rude church or chapel was also within this court, holding a communication with the keep or principal part of the castle by means of a passage in the third wall, which divided the ballium from the inner court. In very large castles there were in general a second fosse, wall, gate, and towers guarding the keep, and thus making a complete division between it and the ballium; but the original owners of Kildrummie, less rich and powerful suzerains than their equals in South Britain, were probably contented with merely a stout wall to divide their own sovereign residence from their more plebeian followers. The keep itself, constructed like all other similar buildings of the age, was a massive tower, covering but a small square, and four or five stories high. There were attempts at luxury in the chambers within, but to modern taste the Norman luxury was little better than rudeness; and certainly though the cushions were soft and richly embroidered, the arras in some of the apartments splendid specimens of needlework, and the beautifully carved and often inlaid oaken walls of others, gave evidence of both taste and talent, yet the dim light seemed to shed a gloom and heaviness over the whole range of rooms and passages, which no skill of workmanship or richness of material could remove. The windows were invariably small, and very long and narrow, and set in walls of such huge thickness, that the sun had barely power even in his summer splendor, to penetrate the dusky panes. In this keep was the great hall of audience, and for the banquet, at the upper end of which the dais was invariably found, and dark and loathsome dungeons formed its basement.
The roof of Kildrummie keep was flatter than the generality of Norman castles, its four angles being surmounted more by the appearance than the reality of turrets; but one rose from the centre, round, and pierced by loopholes, turreted at the top, and commanding an extensive view of the adjoining country: from this tower the banner of the baron always waved, and its non-appearance excited some indignation in the breast of Nigel[Pg 178] Bruce, for his warrior spirit had no sympathy with that timorous excuse, that did it wave at such a time it might excite the attention of the English, whereas did it elevate no symbol of defiance its garrison might pass unquestioned.
"Up with the banner of Scotland and the Bruce!" were the first commands of Sir Nigel, as he stood within the ballium, surrounded by his charge and followers. "Shall we, pledged as we are to our country and king, even seem to stand neutral and conceal our colors, as ashamed of them? Shall this be?"
He was answered by a simultaneous rush towards the keep, and at his word the folds of the broad banner waved exultingly from the tower, its appearance hailed by a loud shout from those beneath, and by a bright and momentary gleam of sunshine flashing through the heavy clouds.
"Ha! see ye, my friends, even heaven smiles on us," exclaimed the young knight triumphantly, and smiling cheerily on his fair friends, as with gay words and graceful action he marshalled them into the keep. It was while doing so, that Agnes marked the figure of an old yet majestic-looking man, whose eyes, still bright and flashing, though his white hair denoted extreme old age, were fixed immovably on the face and form of Nigel. It was a peculiar glance, strained, eager, and yet mournful, holding her attention so fascinated that she paused in her onward way, and pointed him out to Nigel.
"I know him not, love," he said, in, answer to her inquiry. "I should deem him minstrel by his garb, or seer, or both perchance, as is sometimes the case, conjoined. I will speak with him when my present grateful task is done."
But it was the next morning ere he had the opportunity of doing so, for much devolved on the young seneschal. He had to visit the outworks, the stores, the offices, to give multitudinous orders, and receive various intelligences, to review the present garrison and his own followers, and assign to each his post; and though ably aided by Sir Christopher Seaton and other of his officers, all this occupied much time. The outworks he found in excellent condition; the barbacan, of massive stone, seemed well enabled to resist attack, should it be made; the machinery of the drawbridge was in good order, and enabled to be drawn up or let down at a moment's warning. The stores and granaries, which were contained in the towers on the castle wall, were very amply provided, though Nigel, taking advantage of the[Pg 179] present peaceful temper of the country, dispatched trusty messengers without delay for further supplies. That this fortress, almost the only one remaining to his brother, would remain unmolested, Nigel did not for one moment believe, but he did hope that, in case of a siege, if amply provided with stores, it might hold out till the intense cold of the season and climate would turn the besiegers from their purpose; at all events, the advancing winter would be more favorable to the besieged than the besiegers, and though the garrison was comparatively small, the place itself was of such great strength as to guarantee the indulgence of his hopes. That the original garrison were too timorous and wavering for him to place much dependence on them he readily perceived, but he trusted much to the beneficial influence which his own steady, true-hearted followers might be enabled to infuse.
Nigel was young, brave, and animated by every feeling which inspires courage and hope in the buoyant heart of youth. The gloom which had oppressed him in parting with his brother, and indeed had partially clouded his spirit during their rapid journey, vanished before the duties and responsibilities which thronged round him, now that he felt himself the guard and seneschal of the castle intrusted to his charge; now that new duties devolved on him, duties particularly dear to a young and gallant spirit like his own; duties, too, that bound him closer and closer with the gentle being in whose welfare and happiness his own were shrined. It was with a bright smile, then, and animated brow he joined his Agnes early the following morning, in a stroll through a small woody inclosure dignified by the name of garden, which occupied part of the inner court. The old minstrel who had so attracted the attention of Agnes was there before them. He stood against a projecting buttress, his arms folded, his eyes fixed, it seemed on vacancy, and evidently not aware he was approached till Nigel spoke.
"Good morrow, father. I thought we had been the earliest to greet this fresh and frosty air, save those on guard, yet you are before us. Nay, wherefore doff thy cap, good father? The air is somewhat too frosty for thy silvered head."
"I cannot doff it to a nobler, gentle youth," answered the old man, courteously, "save to my sovereign's self; and as his representative, I pay willing homage to his brother."
"Ha! dost thou know me, father? And was it because I[Pg 180] am King Robert's brother thine eyes so rested on me yester morn, mournfully, methought, as if the joy with which I hailed the gleam of sunshine smiling on our banner had little echo in thy breast?"
"Not that, not that," answered the old man, tremulous; "I scarce remarked it, for my thoughts were in that future which is sometimes given me to read. I saw thee, noble youth, but 'twas not here. Dim visions come across my waking hours; it is not well to note them," and he turned away as if he might not meet those eager eyes.
"Not here! yet I was at his side, good father," and Agnes laid her fair hand on the old man's arm.
"Thou wert, thou wert, my child. Beautiful, beautiful!" he half whispered, as he laid his hand dreamily on those golden curls, and looked on her face; "yet hath sorrow touched thee, maiden. Thy morn of life hath been o'erclouded; its shadow lingers yet."
"Too truly speakest thou, father," replied Nigel, drawing Agnes closer to his heart, for tears were starting in her eyes; "yet will not love soon chase that sorrow? Thou who canst penetrate the future, seer of the Bruce's line, tell me, shall she not be mine?"
The old man looked on them both, and then his eyes became fixed on vacancy; long and painfully once or twice he passed his hand across his high, pale brow.
"Vain, vain," he said, sadly; "but one vision comes to mine aching sight, and there she seems thine own. She is thine own—but I know not how that will be. Ask me no more; the dream is passing. 'Tis a sad and fearful gift. Others may triumph in the power, but for me 'tis sad, 'tis very sad."
"Sad! nay, is it not joy, the anticipating joy," answered Nigel, with animation, "to look on a beloved one, and mark, amid the clouds of distance, glory, and honor, and love entwining on, his path? to look through shades of present sorrow, and discern the sunbeam afar off—is there not joy in this?"
"Aye, gentle youth; but now, oh, now is there aught in Scotland to whisper these bright things? There was rejoicing, find glory, and triumph around the patriot Wallace. Scotland sprung from her sluggish sleep, and gave back her echo to his inspiring call. I looked upon the hero's beaming brow, I met the sparkle of his brilliant eye, I bowed before the native ma[Pg 181]jesty of his god-like form, but there was no joy for me. Dark masses of clouds closed round the present sunshine; the present fled like a mist before them, and they oped, and then—there was still Wallace; but oh! how did I see him? the scaffold, the cord, the mocking crowds, the steel-clad guards—all, all, even as he fell. My children! my children! was there joy in this?"
There was a thrilling pathos in the old man's voice that touched the very heart of his listeners. Agnes clung closer to the arm of her betrothed, and looked up tearfully in his face; his cheek was very pale, and his lip slightly quivered. There was evidently a desire to speak, to utter some inquiry, but he looked on that sweet face upturned to his, and the unspoken words died in an inarticulate murmur on his lips.
"My brother," he said, at length, and with some difficulty, though it was evident from the expression of his countenance this was not the question he had meant to ask, "my noble brother, will thy glorious struggles, thy persevering valor, end in this? No, no, it cannot be. Prophet and seer, hast thou e'er gazed on him—him, the hope, the joy, the glory of the line of Bruce? Hast thou gazed on him, and was there no joy there?"
"Yes!" answered the old man, starting from his posture of despondency, and raising his hands with animated fervor, while his cheek flushed, and his eyes, fixed on distance, sparkled with all the fire of youth. "Yes! I have gazed upon that face, and in present and in future it is glorious still. Thick mists have risen round him, well-nigh concealing him within their murky folds, but still, still as a star penetrating through cloud, and mist, and space, till it sees its own bright semblance in the ocean depths, so has that brow, circled by its diadem of freedom, gleamed back upon mine aching sight, and I have seen and known there is joy for Bruce and Scotland yet!"
"Then is there joy for all true Scottish men, good father, and so will we chase all sadness from our brows and hearts," replied Nigel, lightly. "Come, tell us of the past, and not the future, while we stroll; thou hast traditions, hast thou not, to while away an hour?"
"Nay, my young lord," replied the seer, "hast thou not enough in the present, embodied as it is in this fair maiden's dreaming eye and loving heart? The minstrel's harp and ancient[Pg 182] lore are for the evening hour, not for a time and companion such as this," and with an audible blessing he turned away, leaving them to their stroll together.
It was not, however, without an effort Nigel could take advantage of his absence, and make good use of moments so blissful to hearts that love. There was something in the old man's mournful tone and glance when it rested upon him, that answered strangely and sadly to the spirit-voice breathing in his own bold breast. It seemed to touch that chord indefinably, yet felt by the vibration of every nerve which followed. He roused himself, however, and ere they joined the morning meal, there was a brighter smile on the lip and heart of Agnes than had rested there for many a long day.
For a few weeks there was peace both within and without the castle of Kildrummie. The relief, the shelter which its walls afforded to the wearied and exhausted wanderers was at first felt and enjoyed alone. Many of the frailer sex were far too exhausted and disabled by a variety of sufferings, to be sensible of any thing but that greater comforts than had been theirs for many painful months were now possessed; but when their strength became partially restored, when these comforts became sufficiently familiar to admit of other thoughts, the queen's fortitude began to waver. It was not the mere impulse of the moment which caused her to urge her accompanying her husband, on the plea of becoming more and more unworthy of his love if separated from him. Margaret of Mar was not born for a heroine; more especially to act on such a stormy stage as Scotland. Full of kindly feeling, of affection, confidence, gentleness, one that would have drooped and died had her doom been to pass through life unloved, her yielding mind took its tone and coloring from those with whom she most intimately associated; not indeed from the rude and evil, for from those she intuitively shrunk. Beneath her husband's influence, cradled in his love, her spirit received and cherished the reflection of his strength; of itself, she too truly felt it had none; and consequently when that beloved one was far away, the reflection passed from her mind even as the gleam of his armor from the mirror on which it glanced, and Margaret was weak and timorous again. She had thought, and hoped, and prayed, her unfeigned admiration of Isabella of Buchan, her meek and beautiful appreciation of those qualities and candid[Pg 183] acknowledgment that such was the character most adapted to her warrior husband, would bring more steadiness and courage to her own woman breast. Alas! the fearful fate which had overtaken the heroic countess came with such a shock to the weaker soul of Margaret, that if she had obtained any increase of courage, it was at once annihilated, and the desponding fancy entered her mind that if evil reached one so noble, so steadfast in thought and in action, how might she hope to escape; and now, when weakened and depressed alike by bodily and mental suffering, such fancies obtained so much possession of her that she became more and more restless. The exertions of Sir Nigel and his companions, even of her own friends, failed in rousing or infusing strength. Sometimes it was vague conjectures as to the fate of her husband, the dread that he had fallen into the hands of his foes—a catastrophe which not only herself but many stronger minds imagined could scarcely be avoided. She would dwell on these fancies till suspense became intolerable; and then, if these were partially calmed, came personal fears: the belief that if attacked the castle could not muster force enough for defence; suspicions of treachery in the garrison, and other symptoms of the wavering nature of her mind, till Sir Nigel felt too truly that if danger did come she would not stay to meet it. Her wishes ever turned to the sanctuary of St. Duthac in the domains of the Earl of Ross, believing the sanctity of the place would be more effectual protection than the strongest castle and bravest force. In vain Sir Nigel remonstrated, nay, assured her that the fidelity of the Lord of Ross was impugned; that he doubted his flattering overtures; that he was known to be in correspondence with England. But he spoke in vain—the queen persisted in trusting him; that he had ever been a friend of her father and brother the Earls of Mar, and he would be faithful to her interests now. Her opinion weighed with many of the ladies of her court, even amongst those who were not affected with her fears. At such times Agnes never spoke, but there was a calm, quiet determination in her expression that convinced the Lady Seaton, who alone had leisure to observe her, that her resolution was already taken and unalterable.
All that could be done to calm, the queen's perturbed spirits by way of amusement Sir Nigel did; but his task was not an easy one, and the rumor which about this time reached him[Pg 184] that the Earls of Hereford and Lancaster, with a very large force, were rapidly advancing towards Aberdeenshire, did not lessen its difficulties. He sought to keep the information as long as possible from all his female charge, although the appearance of many terrified villagers flying from their homes to the protection of the castle hardly enabled him to do so, and confirmed without doubt the truth of what he had heard. Nigel felt the moment of peril was approaching, and he nerved both mind and frame to meet it. The weak terrors of the queen and some of her train increased with every rumor, and, despite every persuasion of Sir Nigel, Seaton, and other brave and well-tried warriors, she rested not till a negotiation was entered into with the Earl of Ross to grant them a safe conduct through his lands, and permission to enter the sanctuary of St. Duthac.
Perplexed with many sad thoughts, Nigel Bruce was one day slowly traversing a long gallery leading to some uninhabited chambers in the west wing of the building; it was of different architecture, and ruder, heavier aspect than the remainder of the castle. Tradition said that those rooms had been the original building inhabited by an ancestor of the line of Bruce, and the remainder had been gradually added to them; that some dark deed of blood had been there committed, and consequently they were generally kept locked, none of the vassals in the castle choosing to run the risk of meeting the spirits which they declared abode there. We have before said that Nigel was not superstitious, though his mind being of a cast which, adopting and embodying the ideal, he was likely to be supposed such. The particulars of the tradition he had never heard, and consequently it was always with a smile of disbelief he listened to the oft-repeated injunction not to walk at dusk in the western turret. This warning came across him now, but his mind was far otherwise engrossed, too much so indeed for him even to give more than a casual glance to the rude portraits which hung on either side the gallery.
He mistrusted the Earl of Ross, and there came a fear upon his noble spirit that, in permitting the departure of the queen and her attendants, he might be liable to the censure of his sovereign, that he was failing in his trust; yet how was he to act, how put a restraint upon his charge? Had he indeed believed that the defence of the castle would be successful, that[Pg 185] he should be enabled to force the besiegers to raise the siege, he might perhaps have felt justified in restraining the queen—but he did not feel this. He had observed there were many discontented and seditious spirits in the castle, not indeed in the three hundred of his immediate followers; but what were they compared to the immense force now pouring over the country, and whose goal he knew was Kildrummie? The increase of inmates also, from the number of small villages which had emptied their inhabitants into his walls till he was compelled to prevent further ingress, must inevitably diminish his stores, and when once blockaded, to replenish them would be impossible. No personal fears, no weakness of purpose entered the high soul of Nigel Bruce amid these painful cogitations. He well knew no shade of dishonor could fall on him; he thought not one moment of his own fate, although if the castle were taken he knew death awaited him, either by the besieger's sword or the hangman's cord, for he would make no condition; he thought only that this was well-nigh the last castle in his brother's keeping, which, if lost, would in the present depressed state of his affairs be indeed a fatal blow, and a still greater triumph to England.
These thoughts naturally engrossed his mind to the exclusion of all imaginative whisperings, and therefore was it that he drew back the bolt of a door which closed the passage, without any of those peculiar feelings that at a less anxious time might have possessed him; for souls less gifted than that of Nigel Bruce can seldom enter a spot hallowed by tradition without the electric thrill which so strangely unites the present with the past.
It was a chamber of moderate dimensions to which the oaken door admitted him, hung with coarse and faded tapestry, which, disturbed by the wind, disclosed an opening into another passage, through which he pursued his way. In the apartment on which the dark and narrow passage ended, however, his steps were irresistibly arrested. It was panelled with black-oak, of which the floor also was composed, giving the whole an aspect calculated to infect the most thoughtless spirit with gloom. Two high and very narrow windows, the small panes of which were quite incrusted with dust, were the only conductors of light, with the exception of a loophole—for it could scarcely be dignified by the name of casement—on the western[Pg 186] side. Through this loophole the red light of a declining winter sun sent its rays, which were caught and stayed on what seemed at the distance an antique picture-frame. Wondering to perceive a picture out of its place in the gallery, Nigel hastily advanced towards it, pausing, however, on his way to examine, with some surprise, one of the planks in the floor, which, instead of the beautiful black polish which age had rather heightened than marred in the rest, was rough and white, with all the appearance of having been hewn and scraped by some sharp instrument.
It is curious to mark how trifling a thing will sometimes connect, arrange, and render clear as day to the mind all that has before been vague, imperfect, and indistinct. It is like the touch of lightning on an electric chain, link after link starts up till we see the illumined whole. We have said Nigel had never heard the particulars of the tradition; but he looked on that misshapen plank, and in an instant a tale of blood and terror weaved itself in his mind; in that room the deed, whatever it was, had been done, and from that plank the sanguine evidence of murder had been with difficulty erased. A cold shuddering passed over him, and he turned instinctively away, and strode hastily to examine the frame which had attracted him. It did contain a picture—we should rather say a portrait—for it comprised but one figure, the half-length of a youthful warrior, clad in steel, save the beautifully-formed head, which was covered only by his own luxuriant raven curls. In a better light it could not have been placed, particularly in the evening; the rays, condensed and softened, seemed to gather up their power into one focus, and throw such an almost supernatural glow on the half face, give such an extraordinary appearance of life to the whole figure, that a casual visitant to that chamber might well fancy it was no picture but reality on which he gazed. But no such emotion was at work in the bosom of Nigel Bruce, though his first glance upon that face occasioned an almost convulsive start, and then a gaze of such intense, such almost fearful interest, that he stood as if fascinated by some overpowering spell. His features, worked with internal emotions, flushed and paled alternately. It was no weak-minded terror which bound him there, no mood in which a step or sound could chill and startle, for so wrapt was he in his own strange dreams that he heard not a slow and measured[Pg 187] step approach him; he did not even start when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and the melodious voice of the seer caused him to turn slowly around.
"The warnings thou hast heard have no power on thee, young lord," he said, slightly smiling, "or I should not see thee here at this hour alone. Yet thou wert strangely wrapt."
"Knowest thou aught of him, good father?" answered Nigel, in a voice that to his own ears sounded hoarse and unnatural, and turning his glance once again to the portrait. "My thoughts are busy with that face and yon tale-telling plank; there are wild, feverish, incongruous dreams within me, and I would have them solved. Thou of all others art best fitted to the task, for amid the records of the past, where thou hast loved to linger, thou hast surely found the tradition of this tower. I shame not to confess there is in my heart a deep yearning to learn the truth. Wherefore, when thy harp and song have so pleasantly whiled the evening hours, did not this tale find voice, good father?"
"Alas! my son, 'tis too fraught with horror, too sad for gentle ears. A few stern, rugged words will best repeat it. I love not to linger on the theme; listen then now, and it shall be told thee."
"In the reign of Malcolm the Second, the districts now called Aberdeen and Forfar were possessed, and had been so, so tradition saith, since Kenneth MacAlpine, by the Lords of Brus or Bris, a family originally from the North. They were largely and nobly connected, particularly with Norway and Gaul. It is generally supposed the first possessions in Scotland held in fief by the line of Bruce can be traced back only to the time of David I., in the person of Robert de Bruce, an Anglo-Norman baron, whose father came over to England with the Conqueror. The cause of this supposition my tale will presently explain.
"Haco Brus or Bris was the Lord of Aberdeen in the reign of Malcolm the Second. He spent many years abroad; indeed, was supposed to have married and settled there, when, to the surprise of his vassals, he suddenly returned unmarried, and soon after uniting himself with a beautiful and accomplished girl, nearly related to the blood-royal of Scotland, settled quietly in this tower, which was the stronghold of his possessions. Years passed; the only child of the baron, a son, born[Pg 188] in the first year of his marriage, grew up in strength and beauty, the idol not only of his mother, but of his father, a man stern and cold in seeming, even morose, but with passions fearful alike in their influence and extent. Your eye glances to that pictured face, he was not the baron's son of whom I speak. The affections, nay, the very passions of the baron were centered in this boy. It is supposed pride and ambition were their origin, for he looked, through his near connection with the sovereign, for further aggrandizement for himself. There were some who declared ambition was not the master-passion, that a deeper, sterner, fiercer emotion dwelt within. Whether they spoke thus from the sequel, I know not, but that sequel proved their truth.
"There was a gathering of all the knightly and noble in King Malcolm's court, not perchance for trials at arms resembling the tournays of the present day, but very similar in their motive and bearing, though ruder and more dangerous. Tho wreath of glory and victory was ever given by the gentle hand of beauty. Bright eyes and lovely forms presided at the sports even as now, and the king and his highest nobles joined in the revels.
"The wife of the Baron of Brus and his son, now a fine boy of thirteen, were of course amongst the royal guests. Though matron grace and dignified demeanor had taken the place of the blushing charms of early girlhood, the Lady Helen Brus was still very beautiful, and as the niece of the king and wife of such a distinguished baron, commanded and received universal homage. Among the combatants was a youthful knight, of an exterior and bearing so much more polished and graceful than the sons of the soil or their more northern visitors, that he was instantly recognized as coming from Gaul, then as now the most polished kingdom of the south. Delighted with his bravery, his modesty, and most chivalric bearing, the king treated him with most distinguished honor, invited him to his palace, spoke with him as friend with friend on the kingdoms of Normandy and France, to the former of which he was subject. There was a mystery, too, about the young knight, which heightened the interest he excited; he bore no device on his shield, no cognizance whatever to mark his name and birth and his countenance, beautiful as it was, often when in repose expressed sadness and care unusual to his years, for he was[Pg 189] still very young, though in reply to the king's solicitations that he would choose one of Scotland's fairest maidens (her dower should be princely), and make the Scottish court his home, he had smilingly avowed that he was already a husband and father.
"The notice of the king, of course, inspired the nobles with similar feelings of hospitality. Attention and kindness were lavished on the stranger from all, and nothing was talked of but the nameless knight. The Lord of Brus, who had been absent on a mission to a distant court during the continuance of the martial games, was on his return presented by the king himself to the young warrior. It is said that both were so much moved by this meeting, that all present were mystified still more. The baron, with that deep subtlety for which he was remarkable, recovered himself the first, and accounted for his emotion to the satisfaction of his hearers, though not apparently to that of the stranger, who, though his cheek was blanched, still kept his bright searching eyes upon him, till the baron's quailed 'neath his gaze. The hundred tongues of rumor chose to speak of relationship, that there was a likeness between them, yet I know not how that could be. There is no impress of the fiendish passion at work in the baron's soul on those bright, beautiful features."
"Ha! Is it of him you speak?" involuntarily escaped from Nigel, as the old man for a moment paused; "of him? Methought yon portrait was of an ancestor of Bruce, or wherefore is it here?"
"Be patient, good my son. My narrative wanders, for my lips shrink from its tale. That the baron and the knight met, not in warlike joust but in peaceful converse, and at the request of the latter, is known, but on what passed in that interview even tradition is silent, it can only be imagined by the sequel; they appeared, however, less reserved than at first. The baron treated him with the same distinction as his fellow-nobles, and the stranger's manner towards him was even more respectful than the mere difference of age appeared to demand. Important business with the Lord of Brus was alleged as the cause of his accepting that nobleman's invitation to the tower of Kildrummie, in preference to others earlier given and more eagerly enforced. They departed together, the knight accompanied but by two of his followers, and the baron leaving the greater[Pg 190] number of his in attendance on his wife and child, who, for some frivolous reason, he left with the court. It was a strange thing for him to do, men said, as he had never before been known to lose sight of his boy even for a day. For some days all seemed peace and hospitality within the tower. The stranger was too noble himself, and too kindly disposed towards all his fellow-creatures, to suspect aught of treachery, or he might have remarked the retainers of the baron were changed; that ruder forms and darker visages than at first were gathering around him. How the baron might have intended to make use of them—almost all robbers and murderers by trade—cannot be known, though it may be suspected. In this room the last interview between them took place, and here, on this silent witness of the deed, the hand of the father was bathed in the blood of the son!"
"God in heaven!" burst from Nigel's parched lips, as he sprang up. "The son—how could that be? how known?"
"Fearfully, most fearfully!" shudderingly answered the old man; "through the dying ravings of the maniac Lord of Brus himself. Had not heaven, in its all-seeing justice, thus revealed it, the crime would ever have remained concealed. His bandit hirelings were at hand to remove and bury, many fathoms deep in moat and earth, all traces of the deed. One of the unfortunate knight's followers was supposed to have shared the fate of his master, and to the other, who escaped almost miraculously, you owe the preservation of your royal line.
"But there was one witness of the deed neither time nor the most cunning art could efface. The blood lay in a pool on the oaken floor, and the voice of tradition whispers that day after day it was supernaturally renewed; that vain were the efforts to absorb it, it ever seemed moist and red; and that to remove the plank and re-floor the apartment was attempted again and again in vain. However this may be, it is evident that erasing it was attended with extreme difficulty; that the blood had penetrated well-nigh through the immense thickness of the wood."
Nigel stooped down over the crumbling fragment; years, aye, centuries had rolled away, yet there it still stood, arrested it seemed even in its decay, not permitted to crumble into dust, but to remain an everlasting monument of crime and its retribution. After a brief pause Nigel resumed his seat, and push[Pg 191]ing the hair from his brow, which was damp with some untold emotion, signed to the old man to proceed.
"That the stranger warrior returned not to Malcolm's court, and had failed in his promises to various friends, was a matter of disappointment, and for a time, of conjecture to the king and his court. That his followers, in obedience, it was said, to their master's signet, set off instantly to join him either in England or Normandy, for both of which places they had received directions, satisfied the greater number. If others suspected foul play, it was speedily hushed up; for the baron was too powerful, too closely related to the throne, and justice then too weak in Scotland to permit accusation or hope for conviction. Time passed, and the only change observable in the baron was, that he became more gloomy, more abstracted, wrapt up, as it were, in one dark remembrance, one all-engrossing thought. Towards his wife he was changed—harsh, cold, bitterly sarcastic; as if her caresses had turned to gall. Her gentle spirit sunk beneath the withering blight, and he was heard to laugh, the mocking laugh of a fiend, as he followed her to the grave; her child, indeed, he still idolized, but it was a fearful affection, and a just heaven permitted not its continuance. The child, to whom many had looked as likely to ascend the Scottish throne, from the failure of all direct heirs, the beautiful and innocent child of a most guilty father, faded like a lovely flower before him, so softly, so gradually, that there came no suspicion of death till the cold hand was on his heart, and he lay lifeless before him who had plunged his soul in deadliest crime through that child to aggrandize himself. Then was it that remorse, torturing before, took the form of partial madness, and there was not one who had power to restrain, or guide, or soothe.
"Then it was the fearful tale was told, freezing the blood, not so much with the wild madness of the tone, but that the words were too collected, too stamped with truth, to admit of aught like doubt. The couch of the baron was, at his own command, placed here, where we now stand, covering the spot where his first-born fell, and that portrait, obtained from Normandy, hung where it now is, ever in his sight. The dark tale which those wild ravings revealed was simply this:
"He had married, as was suspected, during his wanderings, but soon tired of the yoke, more particularly as his wife possessed a spirit proud and haughty as his own, and all efforts to[Pg 192] mould her to his will were useless, he plunged anew into his reckless career. He had never loved his wife, marrying her simply because it suited his convenience, and brought him increase of wealth and station; and her ill-disguised abhorrence of many of his actions, her beautiful adherence to virtue, however tempted, occasioned all former feelings to concentrate in hatred the most deadly. More than one attempt to rid himself of her by poison she had discovered and frustrated, and at last removed herself and her child, under a feigned name, to Normandy, and ably eluded all pursuit and inquiry.
"The baron's search continued some time, in the hope of silencing her forever, as he feared she might prove a dangerous enemy, but failing in his wishes, he travelled some time over different countries, returned at length to Scotland, and acted as we have seen. The young knight had been informed of his birthright by his mother, at her death, which took place two years before he made his appearance in Scotland; that she had concealed from him the fearful character of his father, being unable so completely to divest herself of all feeling towards the father of her child, as to make him an object of aversion to his son. She had long told him his real name, and urged him to demand from his father an acknowledgment of his being heir to the proud barony of the Bruce. His likeness to herself was so strong, that she knew it must carry conviction to his father; but to make his identity still more certain, she furnished him with certain jewels and papers, none but herself could produce. She had done this in the presence of two faithful witnesses, the father and brother of her son's betrothed bride, high lords of Normandy, the former of which made it a condition annexed to his consent to the marriage, that as soon as possible afterwards he should urge and claim his rights. Sir Walter, of course, willingly complied; they were married by the name of Brus, and their child so baptized. A war, which retained Sir Walter in arms with his sovereign, prevented his seeking Scotland till his boy was a year old, and then for his sake, far more than for his own, the young father determined on asserting his birthright, his child should not be nameless, as he had been; but to spare his unknown parent all public mortification, he joined the martial games without any cognizance or bearing on his shield.
"Terrible were the ravings in which the baron alluded to the interview he had had with his murdered child; the angelic[Pg 193] mildness and generosity of the youthful warrior; that, amid all his firmness never to depart from his claim—as it was not alone himself but his child he would irreparably injure—he never wavered in his respectful deference to his parent. He quitted the court in the belief that the baron sought Kildrummie to collect the necessary papers for substantiating his claim; but ere he died, it appeared his eyes were opened. The fierce passions of the baron had been too long restrained in the last interview; they burst even his politic control, and he had flung the papers received from, the hand of his too-confiding son on the blazing hearth, and with dreadful oaths swore that if he would not instantly retract his claim, and bind himself by the most sacred promise never to breathe the foul tale again, death should be its silent keeper. He would not bring his own head low, and avow that he had dishonored a scion of the blood-royal.
"Appalled far more at the dark, fiendish passions he beheld than the threat held out to himself, Sir Walter stood silent a while, and then mildly demanded to be heard; that if so much public mortification to his parent would attend the pursuance of his claims at the present time, he would consent to forego them, on condition of his father's solemnly promising on his deathbed to reveal the truth, and do him tardy justice then, but forego them altogether he would not, were his life the forfeit. The calm firmness of his tone, it is supposed, lashed his father into greater madness, and thus the dark deed was done.
"That the baron several times endeavored to possess himself of the infant child of Sir Walter, also came to light in his dying moments; that he had determined to exterminate root and branch, fearful he should still possess some clue to his birth; he had frantically avowed, but in his last hour, he would have given all his amassed treasure, his greatness, his power, but for one little moment of assurance that his grandson lived. He left him all his possessions, his lordship, his name, but as there were none came forth to claim, they of necessity passed to the crown."
"But the child, the son of Sir Walter—if from him our line descends, he must have lived to manhood—why did not he demand his rights?"
"He lived, aye, and had a goodly progeny; but the fearful[Pg 194] tale of his father's fate related to him again and again by the faithful Edric, who had fled from his master's murdered corse to watch over the safety of that master's child, and warn all who had the charge of him of the fiend in human shape who would probably seek the boy's life as he had his father's, caused him to shun the idea of his Scottish possessions with a loathing horror which he could not conquer; they were associated with the loss of both his parents, for his father's murder killed his devoted mother. He was contented to feel himself Norman in possessions as well as in name. He received lands and honors from the Dukes of Normandy, and at the advanced age of seventy and five, accompanied Duke William to England. The third generation from him obtained anew Scottish possessions, and gradually Kildrummie and its feudal tenures returned to its original lords; but the tower had been altered and enlarged, and except the tradition of these chambers, the fearful fate of the second of the line has faded from the minds of his descendants, unless casually or supernaturally recalled."
"Ha! supernaturally, sayest thou?" interrupted Nigel, in a tone so peculiar it almost startled his companion. "Are there those who assert they have seen his semblance—good, gifted, beautiful as thou hast described him? why not at once deem him the guardian spirit of our house?"
"And there are those who deem him so, young lord," answered the seer. "It is said that until the Lords of Bruce again obtained possession of these lands, in the visions of the night the form of the murdered warrior, clad as in yon portrait, save with the addition of a scarf across his breast bearing the crest and cognizance of the Bruce, appeared once in his lifetime to each lineal descendant. Such visitations are said to have ceased, and he is now only seen by those destined like himself to an early and bloody death, cut off in the prime of manhood, nobleness, and joy."
"And where—sleeping or waking?" demanded the young nobleman, in a low, deep tone, laying his hand on the minstrel's arm, and looking fixedly on his now strangely agitated face.
"Sleeping or waking? it hath been both," he answered, and his voice faltered. "If it be in the front of the war, amid the press, the crush, the glory of the battle, he hath come, circled with bright forms and brighter dreams, to the sleeping warrior on the eve of his last fight; if"—and his voice grew lower and[Pg 195] huskier yet—"if by the red hand of the foe, by the captive's chain and headsman's axe, as the noble Wallace, there have been those who say—I vouch not for its truth—he hath been seen in the vigils of the night on the eve of knighthood, when the young, aspiring warrior hath watched and prayed beside his arms. Boy! boy! why dost thou look upon me thus?"
"Because thine eye hath read my doom," he said, in a firm, sweet tone; "and if there be aught of truth in thy tale, thou knowest, feelest I have seen him. God of mercy, the captive's chain, the headsman's axe! Yet 'tis Thy will, and for my country—let it come."