For the better comprehension of the events related in the preceding chapter, it will be necessary to cast a summary[Pg 20] glance on matters of historical and domestic import no way irrelevant to our subject, save and except their having taken place some few years previous to the commencement of our tale.
The early years of Isabella of Buchan had been passed in happiness. The only daughter, indeed for seven years the only child, of Malcolm, Earl of Fife, deprived of he
mother on the birth of her brother, her youth had been nursed in a tenderness and care uncommon in those rude ages; and yet, from being constantly with her father, she imbibed those higher qualities of mind which so ably fitted her for the part which in after years it was her lot to play. The last words of his devoted wife, imploring him to educate her child himself, and not to sever the tie between them, by following the example of his compeers, and sending her either to England, France, or Norway, had been zealously observed by the earl; the prosperous calm, which was the happy portion of Scotland during the latter years of Alexander III., whose favorite minister he was, enabled him to adhere to her wishes far more successfully than could have been the case had he been called forth to war.
In her father's castle, then, were the first thirteen years of the Lady Isabella spent, varied only by occasional visits to the court of Alexander, where her beauty and vivacity rendered her a universal favorite. Descended from one of the most ancient Scottish families, whose race it was their boast had never been adulterated by the blood of a foreigner, no Norman prejudice intermingled with the education of Isabella, to tarnish in any degree those principles of loyalty and patriotism which her father, the Earl of Fife, so zealously inculcated. She was a more true, devoted Scottish woman at fourteen, than many of her own rank whose years might double hers; ready even then to sacrifice even life itself, were it called for in defence of her sovereign, or the freedom of her country; and when, on the death of Alexander, clouds began to darken the horizon of Scotland, her father scrupled not to impart to her, child though she seemed, those fears and anxieties which clouded his brow, and filled his spirit with foreboding gloom. It was then that in her flashing eye and lofty soul, in the undaunted spirit, which bore a while even his colder and more foreseeing mood along with it, that he traced the fruit whose seed he had so carefully sown.[Pg 21]
"Why should you fear for Scotland, my father?" she would urge; "is it because her queen is but a child and now far distant, that anarchy and gloom shall enfold our land? Is it not shame in ye thus craven to deem her sons, when in thy own breast so much devotion and loyalty have rest? why not judge others by yourself, my father, and know the dark things of which ye dream can never be?"
"Thou speakest as the enthusiast thou art, my child. Yet it is not the rule of our maiden queen my foreboding spirit dreads; 'tis that on such a slender thread as her young life suspends the well-doing or the ruin of her kingdom. If she be permitted to live and reign over us, all may be well; 'tis on the event of her death for which I tremble."
"Wait till the evil day cometh then, my father; bring it not nearer by anticipation; and should indeed such be, thinkest thou not there are bold hearts and loyal souls to guard our land from foreign foe, and give the rightful heir his due?"
"I know not, Isabella. There remain but few with the pure Scottish blood within their veins, and it is but to them our land is so dear: they would peril life and limb in her defence. It is not to the proud baron descended from the intruding Norman, and thinking only of his knightly sports and increase of wealth, by it matters not what war. Nor dare we look with confidence to the wild chiefs of the north and the Lords of the Isles; eager to enlarge their own dominions, to extend the terrors of their name, they will gladly welcome the horrors and confusion that may arise; and have we true Scottish blood enough to weigh against these, my child? Alas! Isabella, our only hope is in the health and well-doing of our queen, precarious as that is; but if she fail us, woe to Scotland!"
The young Isabella could not bring forward any solid arguments in answer to this reasoning, and therefore she was silent; but she felt her Scottish blood throb quicker in her veins, as he spoke of the few pure Scottish men remaining, and inwardly vowed, woman as she was, to devote both energy and life to her country and its sovereign.
Unhappily for his children, though perhaps fortunately for himself, the Earl of Fife was spared the witnessing in the miseries of his country how true had been his forebodings. Two years after the death of his king, he was found dead in his bed, not without strong suspicion of poison. Public rumor[Pg 22] pointed to his uncle, Macduff of Glamis, as the instigator, if not the actual perpetrator of the deed; but as no decided proof could be alleged against him, and the High Courts of Scotland not seeming inclined to pursue the investigation, the rumor ceased, and Macduff assumed, with great appearance of zeal, the guardianship of the young Earl of Fife and his sister, an office bequeathed to him under the hand and seal of the earl, his nephew.
The character of the Lady Isabella was formed; that of her brother, a child of eight, of course was not; and the deep, voiceless suffering her father's loss occasioned her individually was painfully heightened by the idea that to her young brother his death was an infinitely greater misfortune than to herself. He indeed knew not, felt not the agony which bound her; he knew not the void which was on her soul; how utterly, unspeakably lonely that heart had become, accustomed as it had been to repose its every thought, and hope, and wish, and feeling on a parent's love; yet notwithstanding this, her clear mind felt and saw that while for herself there was little fear that she should waver in those principles so carefully instilled, for her brother there was much, very much to dread. She did not and could not repose confidence in her kinsman; for her parent's sake she struggled to prevent dislike, to compel belief that the suavity, even kindness of his manner, the sentiments which he expressed, had their foundation in sincerity; but when her young brother became solely and entirely subject to his influence, she could no longer resist the conviction that their guardian was not the fittest person for the formation of a patriot. She could not, she would not believe the rumor which had once, but once, reached her ears, uniting the hitherto pure line of Macduff with midnight murder; her own noble mind rejected the idea as a thing utterly and wholly impossible, the more so perhaps, as she knew her father had been latterly subject to an insidious disease, baffling all the leech's art, and which he himself had often warned her would terminate suddenly; yet still an inward shuddering would cross her heart at times, when in his presence; she could not define the cause, or why she felt it sometimes and not always, and so she sought to subdue it, but she sought in vain.
Meanwhile an event approached materially connected with the Lady Isabella, and whose consummation the late Thane of Fife had earnestly prayed he might have been permitted to[Pg 23] hallow with his blessing. Alexander Comyn, Earl of Buchan and High Constable of Scotland, had been from early youth the brother in arms and dearest friend of the Earl of Fife, and in the romantic enthusiasm which ever characterized the companionship of chivalry, they had exchanged a mutual vow that in after years, should heaven grant them children, a yet nearer and dearer tie should unite their houses. The birth of Isabella, two years after that of an heir to Buchan, was hailed with increased delight by both fathers, and from her earliest years she was accustomed to look to the Lord John as her future husband. Perhaps had they been much thrown together, Isabella's high and independent spirit would have rebelled against this wish of her father, and preferred the choosing for herself; but from the ages of eleven and nine they had been separated, the Earl of Buchan sending his son, much against the advice of his friend, to England, imagining that there, and under such a knight as Prince Edward, he would better learn the noble art of war and all chivalric duties, than in the more barbarous realm of Scotland. To Isabella, then, her destined husband was a stranger; yet with a heart too young and unsophisticated to combat her parent's wishes, by any idea of its affections becoming otherwise engaged, and judging of the son by the father, to whom she was ever a welcome guest, and who in himself was indeed a noble example of chivalry and honor, Isabella neither felt nor expressed any repugnance to her father's wish, that she should sign her name to a contract of betrothal, drawn up by the venerable abbot of Buchan, and to which the name of Lord John had been already appended; it was the lingering echoes of that deep, yet gentle voice, blessing her compliance to his wishes, which thrilled again and again to her heart, softening her grief, even when that beloved voice was hushed forever, and she had no thought, no wish to recall that promise, nay, even looked to its consummation with joy, as a release from the companionship, nay, as at times she felt, the wardance of her kinsman.
But this calm and happy frame of mind was not permitted to be of long continuance. In one of the brief intervals of Macduff's absence from the castle, about eighteen months after her father's death, the young earl prevailed on the aged retainer in whose charge he had been left, to consent to his going forth to hunt the red deer, a sport of which, boy as he was,[Pg 24] he was passionately fond. In joyous spirits, and attended by a gallant train, he set out, calling for and receiving the ready sympathy of his sister, who rejoiced as himself in his emancipation from restraint, which either was, or seemed to be, adverse to the usual treatment of noble youths.
Somewhat sooner than Isabella anticipated, they returned. Earl Duncan, with a wilfulness which already characterized him, weary of the extreme watchfulness of his attendants, who, in their anxiety to keep him from danger, checked and interfered with his boyish wish to signalize himself by some daring deed of agility and skill, at length separated himself, except from one or two as wilful, and but little older than himself. The young lord possessed all the daring of his race, but skill and foresight he needed greatly, and dearly would he have paid for his rashness. A young and fiery bull had chanced to cross his path, and disregarding the entreaties of his followers, he taunted them with cowardice, and goaded the furious animal to the encounter; too late he discovered that he had neither skill nor strength for the combat he had provoked, and had it not been for the strenuous exertions of a stranger youth, who diverted aside the fury of the beast, he must have fallen a victim to his thoughtless daring. Curiously, and almost enviously, he watched the combat between the stranger and the bull, nor did any emotion of gratitude rise in the boy's breast to soften the bitterness with which he regarded the victory of the former, which the reproaches of his retainers, who at that instant came up, and their condemnation of his folly, did not tend to diminish; and almost sullenly he passed to the rear, on their return, leaving Sir Malise Duff to make the acknowledgments, which should have come from him, and courteously invite the young stranger to accompany them home, an invitation which, somewhat to the discomposure of Earl Duncan, was accepted.
If the stranger had experienced any emotion of anger from the boy's slight of his services, the gratitude of the Lady Isabella would have banished it on the instant, and amply repaid them; with cheeks glowing, eyes glistening, and a voice quivering with suppressed emotion, she had spoken her brief yet eloquent thanks; and had he needed further proof, the embrace she lavished on her young brother, as reluctantly, and after a long interval, he entered the hall, said yet more than her broken words.[Pg 25]
"Thou art but a fool, Isabella, craving thy pardon," was his ungracious address, as he sullenly freed himself from her. "Had I brought thee the bull's horns, there might have been some cause for this marvellously warm welcome; but as it is—"
"I joy thou wert not punished for thy rashness, Duncan. Yet 'twas not in such mood I hoped to find thee; knowest thou that 'tis to yon brave stranger thou owest thy life?"
"Better it had been forfeited, than that he should stand between me and mine honor. I thank him not for it, nor owe him aught like gratitude."
"Peace, ungrateful boy, an thou knowest not thy station better," was his sister's calm, yet dignified reply; and the stranger smiled, and by his courteous manner, speedily dismissed her fears as to the impression of her brother's words, regarding them as the mere petulance of a child.
Days passed, and still the stranger lingered; eminently handsome, his carriage peculiarly graceful, and even dignified, although it was evident, from the slight, and as it were, unfinished roundness of his figure, that he was but in the first stage of youth, yet his discourse and manner were of a kind that would bespeak him noble, even had his appearance been less convincing. According to the custom of the time, which would have deemed the questioning a guest as to his name and family a breach of all the rules of chivalry and hospitality, he remained unknown.
"Men call me Sir Robert, though I have still my spurs to win," he had once said, laughingly, to Lady Isabella and her kinsman, Sir Malise Duff, "but I would not proclaim my birth till I may bring it honor."
A month passed ere their guest took his departure, leaving regard and regret behind him, in all, perhaps, save in the childish breast of Earl Duncan, whose sullen manner had never changed. There was a freshness and light-heartedness, and a wild spirit of daring gallantry about the stranger that fascinated, men scarce knew wherefore; a reckless independence of sentiment which charmed, from the utter absence of all affectation which it comprised. To all, save to the Lady Isabella, he was a mere boy, younger even than his years; but in conversation with her his superior mind shone forth, proving he could in truth appreciate hers, and give back intellect for intel[Pg 26]lect, feeling for feeling; perhaps her beauty and unusual endowments had left their impression upon him. However it may be, one day, one little day after the departure of Sir Robert, Isabella woke to the consciousness that the calm which had so long rested on her spirit bad departed, and forever; and to what had it given place? Had she dared to love, she, the betrothed, the promised bride of another? No; she could not have sunk thus low, her heart had been too long controlled to rebel now. She might not, she would not listen to its voice, to its wild, impassioned throbs. Alas! she miscalculated her own power; the fastnesses she had deemed secure were forced; they closed upon their subtle foe, and held their conqueror prisoner.
But Isabella was not one to waver in a determination when once formed; how might she break asunder links which the dead had hallowed? She became the bride of Lord John; she sought with her whole soul to forget the past, and love him according to her bridal vow, and as time passed she ceased to think of that beautiful vision of her early youth, save as a dream that had had no resting; and a mother's fond yearnings sent their deep delicious sweetness as oil on the troubled waters of her heart. She might have done this, but unhappily she too soon discovered her husband was not one to aid her in her unsuspected task, to soothe and guide, and by his affection demand her gratitude and reverence. Enwrapped in selfishness or haughty indifference, his manner towards her ever harsh, unbending, and suspicious, Isabella's pride would have sustained her, had not her previous trial lowered her in self-esteem; but as it was, meekly and silently she bore with the continued outbreak of unrestrained passion, and never wavered from the path of duty her clear mind had laid down.
On the birth of a son, however, her mind regained its tone, and inwardly yet solemnly she vowed that no mistaken sense of duty to her husband should interfere with the education of her son. As widely opposed as were their individual characters, so were the politics of the now Earl and Countess of Buchan. Educated in England, on friendly terms with her king, he had, as the Earl of Fife anticipated, lost all nationality, all interest in Scotland, and as willingly and unconcernedly taken the vows of homage to John Baliol, as the mere representative and lieutenant of Edward, as he would have done to[Pg 27] a free and unlimited king. He had been among the very first to vote for calling in the King of England as umpire; the most eager to second and carry out all Edward's views, and consequently high in that monarch's favor, a reputation which his enmity to the house of Bruce, one of the most troublesome competitors of the crown, did not tend to diminish. Fortunately perhaps for Isabella, the bustling politics of her husband constantly divided them. The births of a daughter and son had no effect in softening his hard and selfish temper; he looked on them more as incumbrances than pleasures, and leaving the countess in the strong Tower of Buchan, he himself, with a troop of armed and mounted Comyns, attached himself to the court and interests of Edward, seeming to forget that such beings as a wife and children had existence. Months, often years, would stretch between the earl's visits to his mountain home, and then a week was the longest period of his lingering; but no evidence of a gentler spirit or of less indifference to his children was apparent, and years seemed to have turned to positive evil, qualities which in youth had merely seemed unamiable.
Desolate as the situation of the countess might perhaps appear, she found solace and delight in moulding the young minds of her children according to the pure and elevated cast of her own. All the long-suppressed tenderness of her nature was lavished upon them, and on their innocent love she sought to rest the passionate yearnings of her own. She taught them to be patriots, in the purest, most beautiful appropriation of the term,—to spurn the yoke of the foreigner, and the oppressor, however light and flowery the links of that yoke might seem. She could not bid them love and revere their father as she longed to do, but she taught them that where their duty to their country and their free and unchained king interfered not, in all things they must obey and serve their father, and seek to win his love.
Once only had the Countess of Buchan beheld the vision which had crossed her youth. He had come, it seemed unconscious of his track, and asked hospitality for a night, evidently without knowing who was the owner of the castle; perhaps his thoughts were preoccupied, for a deep gloom was on his brow, and though he had started with evident pleasure when recognizing his beautiful hostess, the gloom speedily resumed ascendency. It was but a few weeks after the fatal battle of Falkirk,[Pg 28] and therefore Isabella felt there was cause enough for depression and uneasiness. The graces of boyhood had given place to a finished manliness of deportment, a calmer expression of feature, denoting that years had changed and steadied the character, even as the form. He then seemed as one laboring under painful and heavy thought, as one brooding over some mighty change within, as if some question of weighty import were struggling with recollections and visions of the past. He had spoken little, evidently shrinking in pain from all reference to or information on the late engagement. He tarried not long, departing with dawn next day, and they did not meet again.
And what had been the emotions of the countess? perhaps her heart had throbbed, and her cheek paled and flushed, at this unexpected meeting with one she had fervently prayed never to see again; but not one feeling obtained ascendency in that heart which she would have dreaded to unveil to the eye of her husband. She did indeed feel that had her lot been cast otherwise, it must have been a happy one, but the thought was transient. She was a wife, a mother, and in the happiness of her children, her youth, and all its joys and pangs, and dreams and hopes, were merged, to be recalled no more.
The task of instilling patriotic sentiments in the breast of her son had been insensibly aided by the countess's independent position amid the retainers of Buchan. This earldom had only been possessed by the family of Comyn since the latter years of the reign of William the Lion, passing into their family by the marriage of Margaret Countess of Buchan with Sir William Comyn, a knight of goodly favor and repute. This interpolation and ascendency of strangers was a continual source of jealousy and ire to the ancient retainers of the olden heritage, and continually threatened to break out into open feud, had not the soothing policy of the Countess Margaret and her descendants, by continually employing them together in subjecting other petty clans, contrived to keep them in good humor. As long as their lords were loyal to Scotland and her king, and behaved so as to occasion no unpleasant comparison between them and former superiors, all went on smoothly; but the haughty and often outrageous conduct of the present earl, his utter neglect of their interests, his treasonous politics, speedily roused the slumbering fire into flame. A secret yet solemn oath went round the clan, by which every fighting man bound himself to[Pg 29] rebel against their master, rather than betray their country by siding with a foreign tyrant; to desert their homes, their all, and disperse singly midst the fastnesses and rocks of Scotland, than lift up a sword against her freedom. The sentiments of the countess were very soon discovered; and even yet stronger than the contempt and loathing with which they looked upon the earl was the love, the veneration they bore to her and to her children. If his mother's lips had been silent, the youthful heir would have learned loyalty and patriotism from his brave though unlettered retainers, as it was to them he owed the skin and grace with which he sate his fiery steed, and poised his heavy lance, and wielded his stainless brand—to them he owed all the chivalric accomplishments of the day; and though he had never quitted the territories of Buchan, he would have found few to compete with him in his high and gallant spirit.
Dark and troubled was the political aspect of unhappy Scotland, at the eventful period at which our tale commences. The barbarous and most unjust execution of Sir William Wallace had struck the whole country as with a deadly panic, from which it seemed there was not one to rise to cast aside the heavy chains, whose weight it seemed had crushed the whole kingdom, and taken from it the last gleams of patriotism and of hope. Every fortress of strength and consequence was in possession of the English. English soldiers, English commissioners, English judges, laws, and regulations now filled and governed Scotland. The abrogation of all those ancient customs, which had descended from the Celts and Picts, and Scots, fell upon the hearts of all true Scottish men as the tearing asunder the last links of freedom, and branding them as slaves. Her principal nobles, strangely and traitorously, preferred safety and wealth, in the acknowledgment and servitude of Edward, to glory and honor in the service of their country; and the spirits of the middle ranks yet spurned the inglorious yoke, and throbbed but for one to lead them on, if not to victory, at least to an honorable death. That one seemed not to rise; it was as if the mighty soul of Scotland had departed, when Wallace slept in death.[Pg 30]