A bustling and joyous aspect did the ancient town of Scone present near the end of March, 1306. Subdued indeed, and evidently under some restraint and mystery, which might be accounted for by the near vicinity of the English, who were quartered in large numbers over almost the whole of Perthshire; some, however, appeared exempt from these most unwelcome guests. The nobles, esquires, yeomen, and peasants—all, by their national garb and eager yet suppressed voices, might be known at once as Scot
men right and true.
It had been long, very long since the old quiet town had witnessed such busy groups and such eager tongues as on all sides thronged it now; the very burghers and men of handicraft wore on their countenances tokens of something momentous. There were smiths' shops opening on every side, armorers at work, anvils clanging, spears sharpening, shields burnishing, bits and steel saddles and sharp spurs meeting the eye at every turn. Ever and anon, came a burst of enlivening music, and well mounted and gallantly attired, attended by some twenty or fifty followers, as may be, would gallop down some knight or noble, his armor flashing back a hundred fold the rays of the setting sun; his silken pennon displayed, the device of which seldom failed to excite a hearty cheer from the excited crowds; his stainless shield and heavy spear borne by his attendant esquires; his vizor up, as if he courted and dared recognition; his surcoat, curiously and tastefully embroidered; his gold or silver-sheathed and hilted sword suspended by the silken sash of many folds and brilliant coloring. On foot or on horseback, these noble cavaliers were continually passing and repassing the ancient streets, singly or in groups; then there were their followers, all carefully and strictly armed, in the buff coat plaited with steel, the well-quilted bonnet, the huge broadsword; Highlanders in their peculiar and graceful costume; even the stout farmers, who might also be found amongst this motley assemblage, wearing the iron hauberk and sharp sword beneath their apparently peaceful garb. Friars in their gray frocks and black cowls, and stately burghers and magistrates, in their velvet cloaks and gold chains, continually mingled their[Pg 31] peaceful forms with their more warlike brethren, and lent a yet more varied character to the stirring picture.
Varied as were the features of this moving multitude, the expression on every countenance, noble and follower, yeoman and peasant, burgher and even monk, was invariably the same—a species of strong yet suppressed excitement, sometimes shaded by anxiety, sometimes lighted by hope, almost amounting to triumph; sometimes the dark frown of scorn and hate would pass like a thunder-cloud over noble brows, and the mailed hand unconsciously clutched the sword; and then the low thrilling laugh of derisive contempt would disperse the shade, and the muttered oath of vengeance drown the voice of execration. It would have been a strange yet mighty study, the face of man in that old town; but men were all too much excited to observe their fellows, to them it was enough—unspoken, unimparted wisdom as it was—to know, to feel, one common feeling bound that varied mass of men, one mighty interest made them brothers.
The ancient Palace of Scone, so long unused, was now evidently the head-quarters of the noblemen hovering about the town, for whatever purpose they were there assembled. The heavy flag of Scotland, in all its massive quarterings, as the symbol of a free unfettered kingdom, waved from the centre tower; archers and spearmen lined the courts, sentinels were at their posts, giving and receiving the watchword from all who passed and repassed the heavy gates, which from dawn till nightfall were flung wide open, as if the inmates of that regal dwelling were ever ready to receive their friends, and feared not the approach of foes.
The sun, though sinking, was still bright, when the slow and dignified approach of the venerable abbot of Scone occasioned some stir and bustle amidst the joyous occupants of the palace yard; the wild joke was hushed, the noisy brawl subsided, the games of quoit and hurling the bar a while suspended, and the silence of unaffected reverence awaited the good old man's approach and kindly-given benediction. Leaving his attendants in one of the lower rooms, the abbot proceeded up the massive stone staircase, and along a broad and lengthy passage, darkly panelled with thick oak, then pushing aside some heavy arras, stood within one of the state chambers, and gave his fervent benison on one within. This was a man in the earliest and[Pg 32] freshest prime of life, that period uniting all the grace and beauty of youth with the mature thought, and steady wisdom, and calmer views of manhood. That he was of noble birth and blood and training one glance sufficed; peculiarly and gloriously distinguished in the quiet majesty of his figure, in the mild attempered gravity of his commanding features. Nature herself seemed to have marked him out for the distinguished part it was his to play. Already there were lines of thought upon the clear and open brow, and round the mouth; and the blue eye shone with that calm, steady lustre, which seldom comes till the changeful fire and wild visions of dreamy youth have departed. His hair, of rich and glossy brown, fell in loose natural curls on either side his face, somewhat lower than his throat, shading his cheeks, which, rather pale than otherwise, added to the somewhat grave aspect of his countenance; his armor of steel, richly and curiously inlaid with burnished gold, sat lightly and easily upon his peculiarly tall and manly figure; a sash, of azure silk and gold, suspended his sword, whose sheath was in unison with the rest of his armor, though the hilt was studded with gems. His collar was also of gold, as were his gauntlets, which with his helmet rested on a table near him; a coronet of plain gold surmounted his helmet, and on his surcoat, which lay on a seat at the further end of the room, might be discerned the rampant lion of Scotland, surmounted by a crown.
The apartment in which he stood, though shorn of much of that splendor which, ere the usurping invasion of Edward of England, had distinguished it, still bore evidence of being a chamber of some state. The hangings were of dark-green velvet embroidered, and with a very broad fringe of gold; drapery of the same costly material adorned the broad casements, which stood in heavy frames of oak, black as ebony. Large folding-doors, with panels of the same beautiful material, richly carved, opened into an ante-chamber, and thence to the grand staircase and more public parts of the building. In this ante-chamber were now assembled pages, esquires, and other officers bespeaking a royal household, though much less numerous than is generally the case.
"Sir Edward and the young Lord of Douglas have not returned, sayest thou, good Athelbert? Knowest thou when and for what went they forth?" were the words which were spoken[Pg 33] by the noble we have described, as the abbot entered, unperceived at first, from his having avoided the public entrance to the state rooms; they were addressed to an esquire, who, with cap in hand and head somewhat lowered, respectfully awaited the commands of his master.
"They said not the direction of their course, my liege; 'tis thought to reconnoitre either the movements of the English, or to ascertain the cause of the delay of the Lord of Fife. They departed at sunrise, with but few followers."
"On but a useless errand, good Athelbert, methinks, an they hope to greet Earl Duncan, save with a host of English at his back. Bid Sir Edward hither, should he return ere nightfall, and see to the instant delivery of those papers; I fear me, the good lord bishop has waited for them; and stay—Sir Robert Keith, hath he not yet returned?"
"No, good my lord."
"Ha! he tarrieth long," answered the noble, musingly. "Now heaven forefend no evil hath befallen him; but to thy mission, Athelbert, I must not detain thee with doubts and cavil. Ha! reverend father, right welcome," he added, perceiving him as he turned again to the table, on the esquire reverentially withdrawing from his presence, and bending his head humbly in acknowledgment of the abbot's benediction. "Thou findest me busied as usual. Seest thou," he pointed to a rough map of Scotland lying before him, curiously intersected with mystic lines and crosses, "Edinburgh, Berwick, Roxburgh, Lanark, Stirling, Dumbarton, in the power of, nay peopled, by English. Argyle on the west, Elgin, Aberdeen, with Banff eastward, teeming with proud, false Scots, hereditary foes to the Bruce, false traitors to their land; the north—why, 'tis the same foul tale; and yet I dare to raise my banner, dare to wear the crown, and fling defiance in the teeth of all. What sayest thou, father—is't not a madman's deed?"
All appearance of gravity vanished from his features as he spoke. His eye, seemingly so mild, flashed till its very color could not have been distinguished, his cheek glowed, his lip curled, and his voice, ever peculiarly rich and sonorous, deepened with the excitement of soul.
"Were the fate of man in his own hands, were it his and his alone to make or mar his destiny, I should e'en proclaim thee mad, my son, and seek to turn thee from thy desperate[Pg 34] purpose; but it is not so. Man is but an instrument, and He who urged thee to this deed, who wills not this poor land to rest enslaved, will give thee strength and wisdom for its freedom. His ways are not as man's; and circled as thou seemest with foes, His strength shall bring thee forth and gird thee with His glory. Thou wouldst not turn aside, my son—thou fearest not thy foes?"
"Fear! holy father: it is a word unknown to the children of the Bruce! I do but smile at mine extensive kingdom—of some hundred acres square; smile at the eagerness with which they greet me liege and king, as if the words, so long unused, should now do double duty for long absence."
"And better so, my son," answered the old man, cheerfully. "Devotion to her destined savior argues well for bonny Scotland; better do homage unto thee as liege and king, though usurpation hath abridged thy kingdom, than to the hireling of England's Edward, all Scotland at his feet. Men will not kneel to sceptred slaves, nor freemen fight for tyrants' tools. Sovereign of Scotland thou art, thou shalt be, Robert the Bruce! Too long hast thou kept back; but now, if arms can fight and hearts can pray, thou shalt be king of Scotland."
The abbot spoke with a fervor, a spirit which, though perhaps little accordant with his clerical character, thrilled to the Bruce's heart. He grasped the old man's hand.
"Holy father," he said, "thou wouldst inspire hearts with ardor needing inspiration more than mine; and to me thou givest hope, and confidence, and strength. Too long have I slept and dreamed," his countenance darkened, and his voice was sadder; "fickle in purpose, uncertain in accomplishment; permitting my youth to moulder 'neath the blasting atmosphere of tyranny. Yet will I now atone for the neglected past. Atone! aye, banish it from the minds of men. My country hath a claim, a double claim upon me; she calls upon me, trumpet-tongued, to arise, avenge her, and redeem my misspent youth. Nor shall she call on me in vain, so help me, gracious heaven!"
"Amen," fervently responded the abbot; and the king continued more hurriedly—
"And that stain, that blot, father? Is there mercy in heaven to wash its darkness from my soul, or must it linger[Pg 35] there forever preying on my spirit, dashing e'en its highest hopes and noblest dreams with poison, whispering its still voice of accusation, even when loudest rings the praise and love of men? Is there no rest for this, no silence for that whisper? Penitence, atonement, any thing thou wilt, let but my soul be free!" Hastily, and with step and countenance disordered, he traversed the chamber, his expressive countenance denoting the strife within.
"It was, in truth, a rash and guilty deed, my son," answered the abbot, gravely, yet mildly, "and one that heaven in its justice will scarce pass unavenged. Man hath given thee the absolution accorded to the true and faithful penitent, for such thou art; yet scarcely dare we hope offended heaven is appeased. Justice will visit thee with trouble—sore, oppressing, grievous trouble. Yet despair not: thou wilt come forth the purer, nobler, brighter, from the fire; despair not, but as a child receive a father's chastening; lean upon that love, which wills not death, but penitence and life; that love, which yet will bring thee forth and bless this land in thee. My son, be comforted; His mercy is yet greater than thy sin."
"And blest art thou, my father, for these blessed words; a messenger in truth thou art of peace and love; and oh, if prayers and penitence avail, if sore temptation may be pleaded, I shall, I shall be pardoned. Yet would I give my dearest hopes of life, of fame, of all—save Scotland's freedom—that this evil had not chanced; that blood, his blood—base traitor as he was—was not upon my hand."
"And can it be thou art such craven, Robert, as to repent a Comyn's death—a Comyn, and a traitor—e'en though his dastard blood be on thy hand?—bah! An' such deeds weigh heavy on thy mind, a friar's cowl were better suited to thy brow than Scotland's diadem."
The speaker was a tall, powerful man, somewhat younger in appearance than the king, but with an expression of fierceness and haughty pride, contrasting powerfully with the benevolent and native dignity which so characterized the Bruce. His voice was as harsh as his manner was abrupt; yet that he was brave, nay, rash in his unthinking daring, a very transient glance would suffice to discover.
"I forgive thee thine undeserved taunt, Edward," answered the king, calmly, though the hot blood rushed up to his cheek[Pg 36] and brow. "I trust, ere long, to prove thy words are as idle as the mood which prompted them. I feel not that repentance cools the patriot fire which urges me to strike for Scotland's weal—that sorrow for a hated crime unfits me for a warrior. I would not Comyn lived, but that he had met a traitor's fate by other hands than mine; been judged—condemned, as his black treachery called for; even for our country's sake, it had been better thus."
"Thou art over-scrupulous, my liege and brother, and I too hasty," replied Sir Edward Bruce, in the same bold, careless tone. "Yet beshrew me, but I think that in these times a sudden blow and hasty fate the only judgment for a traitor. The miscreant were too richly honored, that by thy royal hand he fell."
"My son, my son, I pray thee, peace," urged the abbot, in accents of calm, yet grave authority. "As minister of heaven, I may not list such words. Bend not thy brow in wrath, clad as thou art in mail, in youthful might; yet in my Maker's cause this withered frame is stronger yet than thou art. Enough of that which hath been. Thy sovereign spoke in lowly penitence to me—to me, who frail and lowly unto thee, am yet the minister of Him whom sin offends. To thee he stands a warrior and a king, who rude irreverence may brook not, even from his brother. Be peace between us, then, my son; an old man's blessing on thy fierce yet knightly spirit rest."
With a muttered oath Sir Edward had strode away at the abbot's first words, but the cloud passed from his brow as he concluded, and slightly, yet with something of reverence, he bowed his head.
"And whither didst thou wend thy way, my fiery brother?" demanded Robert. "Bringest thou aught of news, or didst thou and Douglas but set foot in stirrup and hand on rein simply from weariness of quiet?"
"In sober truth, 'twas even so; partly to mark the movements of the English, an they make a movement, which, till Pembroke come, they are all too much amazed to do; partly to see if in truth that poltroon Duncan of Fife yet hangs back and still persists in forswearing the loyalty of his ancestors, and leaving to better hands the proud task of placing the crown of Scotland on thy head."[Pg 37]
"And thou art convinced at last that such and such only is his intention?" The knight nodded assent, and Bruce continued, jestingly, "And so thou mightst have been long ago, my sage brother, hadst thou listened to me. I tell thee Earl Duncan hath a spite against me, not for daring to raise the standard of freedom and proclaim myself a king, but for very hatred of myself. Nay, hast thou not seen it thyself, when, fellow-soldiers, fellow-seekers of the banquet, tournay, or ball, he hath avoided, shunned me? and why should he seek me now?"
"Why? does not Scotland call him, Scotland bid him gird his sword and don his mail? Will not the dim spectres of his loyal line start from their very tombs to call him to thy side, or brand him traitor and poltroon, with naught of Duff about him but the name? Thou smilest."
"At thy violence, good brother. Duncan of Fife loves better the silken cords of peace and pleasure, e'en though those silken threads hide chains, than the trumpet's voice and weight of mail. In England bred, courted, flattered by her king, 'twere much too sore a trouble to excite his anger and lose his favor; and for whom, for what?—to crown the man he hateth from his soul?"
"And knowest thou wherefore, good my son, in what thou hast offended?"
"Offended, holy father? Nay, in naught unless perchance a service rendered when a boy—a simple service, merely that of saving life—hath rendered him the touchy fool he is. But hark! who comes?"
The tramping of many horses, mingled with the eager voices of men, resounded from the courtyard as he spoke, and Sir Edward strode hastily to the casement. "Sir Robert Keith returned!" he exclaimed, joyfully; "and seemingly right well attended. Litters too—bah! we want no more women. 'Tis somewhat new for Keith to be a squire of dames. Why, what banner is this? The black bear of Buchan—impossible! the earl is a foul Comyn. I'll to the court, for this passes my poor wits." He turned hastily to quit the chamber, as a youth entered, not without some opposition, it appeared, from the attendants without, but eagerly he had burst through them, and flung his plumed helmet from his beautiful brow, and, after glancing hastily round the room, bounded to the side of Robert,[Pg 38] knelt at his feet, and clasped his knees without uttering a syllable, voiceless from an emotion whose index was stamped upon his glowing features.
"Nigel, by all that's marvellous, and as moon-stricken as his wont! Why, where the foul fiend hast thou sprung from? Art dumb, thou foolish boy? By St. Andrew, these are times to act and speak, not think and feel! Whence comest thou?"
So spoke the impatient Edward, to whom the character of his youngest brother had ever been a riddle, which it had been too much trouble to expound, and that which it seemed to his too careless thought he ever looked upon with scorn and contempt. Not so, King Robert; he raised him affectionately in his arms, and pressed him to his heart.
"Thou'rt welcome, most, most welcome, Nigel; as welcome as unlooked for. But why this quick return from scenes and studies more congenial to thy gentle nature, my young brother? this fettered land is scarce a home for thee; thy free, thy fond imaginings can scarce have resting here." He spoke sadly, and his smile unwittingly was sorrowful.
"And thinkest thou, Robert—nay, forgive me, good my liege—thinkest thou, because I loved the poet's dream, because I turned, in sad and lonely musing, from King Edward's court, I loved the cloister better than the camp? Oh, do me not such wrong! thou knowest not the guidings of my heart; nor needs it now, my sword shall better plead my cause than can my tongue." He turned away deeply and evidently pained, and a half laugh from Sir Edward prevented the king's reply.
"Well crowed, my pretty fledgling," he said, half jesting, half in scorn. "But knowest thou, to fight in very earnest is something different than to read and chant it in a minstrel's lay? Better hie thee back to Florence, boy; the mail suit and crested helm are not for such as thee—better shun them now, than after they are donned."
"How! darest thou, Edward? Edward, tempt me not too far," exclaimed Nigel, his cheek flushing, and springing towards him, his hand upon his half-drawn sword. "By heaven, wert thou not my mother's son, I would compel thee to retract these words, injurious, unjust! How darest thou judge me coward, till my cowardice is proved? Thy blood is not more red than mine."
"Peace, peace! what meaneth this unseemly broil?" said[Pg 39] Robert, hastily advancing between them, for the dark features of Edward were lowering in wrath, and Nigel was excited to unwonted fierceness. "Edward, begone! and as thou saidst, see to Sir Robert Keith—what news he brings. Nigel, on thy love, thy allegiance so lately proffered, if I read thy greeting right, I pray thee heed not his taunting words. I do not doubt thee; 'twas for thy happiness, not for thy gallantry, I trembled. Look not thus dejected;" he held out his hand, which his brother knelt to salute. "Nay, nay, thou foolish boy, forget my new dignity a while, and now that rude brawler has departed, tell me in sober wisdom, how camest thou here? How didst thou know I might have need of thee?" A quick blush suffused the cheek of the young man; he hesitated, evidently confused. "Why, what ails thee, boy? By St. Andrew, Nigel, I do believe thou hast never quitted Scotland."
"And if I have not, my lord, what wilt thou deem me?"
"A very strangely wayward boy, not knowing his own mind," replied the king, smiling. "Yet why should I say so? I never asked thy confidence, never sought it, or in any way returned or appreciated thy boyish love, and why should I deem thee wayward, never inquiring into thy projects—passing thee by, perchance, as a wild visionary, much happier than myself?"
"And thou wilt think me yet more a visionary, I fear me, Robert; yet thine interest is too dear to pass unanswered," rejoined Nigel, after glancing round and perceiving they were alone, for the abbot had departed with Sir Edward, seeking to tame his reckless spirit.
"Know, then, to aid me in keeping aloof from the tyrant of my country, whom instinctively I hated, I confined myself to books and such lore yet more than my natural inclination prompted, though that was strong enough—I had made a solemn vow, rather to take the monk's cowl and frock, than receive knighthood from the hand of Edward of England, or raise my sword at his bidding. My whole soul yearned towards the country of my fathers, that country which was theirs by royal right; and when the renown of Wallace reached my ears, when, in my waking and sleeping dreams, I beheld the patriot struggling for freedom, peace, the only one whose arm had struck for Scotland, whose tongue had dared to speak resistance, I longed wildly, intensely, vainly, to burst the thraldom which held my race, and seek for death beneath the patriot[Pg 40] banner. I longed, yet dared not. My own death were welcome; but mother, father, brothers, sisters, all were perilled, had I done so. I stood, I deemed, alone in my enthusiast dreams; those I loved best, acknowledged, bowed before the man my very spirit loathed; and how dared I, a boy, a child, stand forth arraigning and condemning? But wherefore art thou thus, Robert? oh, what has thus moved thee?"
Wrapped in his own earnest words and thoughts, Nigel had failed until that moment to perceive the effect of his words upon his brother. Robert's head had sunk upon his hand, and his whole frame shook beneath some strong emotion; evidently striving to subdue it, some moments elapsed ere he could reply, and then only in accents of bitter self-reproach. "Why, why did not such thoughts come to me, instead of thee?" he said. "My youth had not wasted then in idle folly—worse, oh, worse—in slavish homage, coward indecision, flitting like the moth around the destructive flame; and while I deemed thee buried in romantic dreams, all a patriot's blood was rushing in thy veins, while mine was dull and stagnant."
"But to flow forth the brighter, my own brother," interrupted Nigel, earnestly. "Oh, I have watched thee, studied thee, even as I loved thee, long; and I have hoped, felt, known that this day would dawn; that thou wouldst rise for Scotland, and she would rise for thee. Ah, now thou smilest as thyself, and I will to my tale. The patriot died—let me not utter how; no Scottish tongue should speak those words, save with the upraised arm and trumpet shout of vengeance! I could not rest in England then; I could not face the tyrant who dared proclaim and execute as traitor the noblest hero, purest patriot, that ever walked this earth. But men said I sought the lyric schools, the poet's haunts in Provence, and I welcomed the delusion; but it was to Scotland that I came, unknown, and silently, to mark if with her Wallace all life and soul had fled. I saw enough to know that were there but a fitting head, her hardy sons would struggle yet for freedom—but not yet; that chief art thou, and at the close of the last year I took passage to Denmark, intending to rest there till Scotland called me."
"And 'tis thence thou comest, Nigel? Can it be, intelligence of my movements hath reached so far north already?" inquired the king, somewhat surprised at the abruptness of his brother's pause.[Pg 41]
"Not so, my liege. The vessel which bore me was wrecked off the breakers of Buchan, and cast me back again to the arms of Scotland. I found hospitality, shelter, kindness; nay more, were this a time and place to speak of happy, trusting love—" he added, turning away from the Bruce's penetrating eye, "and week after week passed, and found me still an inmate of the Tower of Buchan."
"Buchan!" interrupted the king, hastily; "the castle of a Comyn, and thou speakest of love!"
"Of as true, as firm-hearted a Scottish patriot, my liege, as ever lived in the heart of woman—one that has naught of Comyn about her or her fair children but the name, as speedily thou wilt have proof. But in good time is my tale come to a close, for hither comes good Sir Robert, and other noble knights, who, by their eager brows, methinks, have matters of graver import for thy grace's ear."
They entered as he spoke. The patriot nobles who, at the first call of their rightful king, had gathered round his person, few in number, yet firm in heart, ready to lay down fame, fortune, life, beside his standard, rather than acknowledge the foreign foe, who, setting aside all principles of knightly honor, knightly faith, sought to claim their country as his own, their persons as his slaves. Eager was the greeting of each and all to the youthful Nigel, mingled with some surprise. Their conference with the king was but brief, and as it comprised matters more of speculation than of decided import, we will pass on to a later period of the same evening.