The hour of vespers had come and passed; the organ and choir had hushed their solemn sounds. The abbot and his attendant monks, the king who, with his train, had that evening joined the solemn service, all had departed, and but two inmates were left within the abbey church of Scone. Darkness and silence had assumed their undisturbed dominion, for the waxen tapers left burning on the altar lighted but a few yards round, leaving the nave and cloisters in impenetrable gloom. Some twenty or thirty y
rds east of the altar, elevated some paces from the ground, in its light and graceful shrine, stood an elegantly sculptured figure of the Virgin and Child. A silver lamp, whose pure flame was fed with aromatic incense, burned within the shrine and shed its soft light on a suit of glittering armor which was hanging on the shaft of a pillar close beside it. Directly behind the altar was a large oriel window of stained glass, representing subjects from Scripture. The window, with its various mullions and lights, formed one high pointed arch, marked by solid stone pillars on each side, the capitals of which traced the commencement of the arch. Another window, similar in character, though somewhat smaller in dimensions, lighted the west end of the church; and near it stood another shrine containing a figure of St. Stephen, lighted as was that of the Virgin and Child, and, like that, gleaming on a suit of armor, and on the figure of the youthful candidate for knighthood, whose task was to pass that night in prayer and vigil beside his armor, unarmed, saved by that panoply of proof which is the Christian's portion—faith, lowliness, and prayer.
No word passed between these pledged brothers in arms. Their watch was in opposite ends of the church, and save the dim, solemn light of the altar, darkness and immeasurable space appeared to stretch between them. Faintly and fitfully the moon had shone through one of the long, narrow windows of the aisles, shedding its cold spectral light for a brief space, then passing into darkness. Heavy masses of clouds sailed slowly in the heavens, dimly discernible through the unpainted panes; the oppression of the atmosphere increasing as the night[Pg 88] approached her zenith, and ever and anon a low, long peal of distant thunder, each succeeding one becoming longer and louder than the last, and heralded by the blue flash of vivid lightning, announced the fury of the coming tempest.
The imaginations even as the feelings of the young men were already strongly excited, although their thoughts, perchance, were less akin than might have been expected. The form of his mother passed not from the mental vision of the young heir of Buchan: the tone of her voice, the unwonted tear which had fallen on his cheek when he had knelt before her that evening, ere he had departed to his post, craving her blessing on his vigil, her prayers for him—that tone, that tear, lingered on his memory, hallowing every dream of glory, every warrior hope that entered in his soul. Internally he vowed he would raise the banner of his race, and prove the loyalty, the patriotism, the glowing love of liberty which her counsels, her example had planted in his breast; and if the recollection of his mother's precarious situation as a proscribed traitor to Edward, and of his father's desertion of his country and her patriot king in his adherence to a tyrant—if these reflections came to damp the bright glowing views of others, they did but call the indignant blood to his cheek, and add greater firmness to his impatient step, for yet more powerfully did they awake his indignation against Edward. Till now he had looked upon him exclusively in the light of Scotland's foe—one against whom he with all true Scottish men must raise their swords, or live forever 'neath the brand of slaves and cowards; but now a personal cause of anger added fuel to the fire already burning in his breast. His mother was proscribed—a price set upon her head; and as if to fill the measure of his cup of bitterness to overflowing, his own father, he who should have been her protector, aided and abetted the cruel, pitiless Edward. Traitress! Isabella of Buchan a traitress! the noblest, purest, bravest amid Scotland's children. She who to him had ever seemed all that was pure and good, and noblest in woman; and most noble and patriot-hearted now, in the fulfilment of an office inherent in the House of Fife. Agitated beyond expression, quicker and quicker he strode up and down the precincts marked for his watch, the increasing tempest without seeming to assimilate strangely with the storm within. Silence would have irritated, would have chafed those restless smartings into[Pg 89] very agony, but the wild war of the elements, while they roused his young spirit into yet stronger energy, removed its pain.
"It matters not," his train of thought continued, "while this brain can think, this heart can feel, this arm retain its strength, Isabella of Buchan needs no other guardian but her son. It is as if years had left their impress on my heart, as if I had grown in very truth to man, thinking with man's wisdom, fighting with man's strength. He that hath never given a father's love, hath never done a father's duty, hath no claim upon his child; but she, whose untiring devotion, whose faithful love hath watched over me, guarded, blessed from the first hour of my life, instilled within me the principles of life on earth and immortality in heaven—mother! mother! will not thy gentle virtues cling around thy boy, and save him even from a father's curse? Can I do else than devote the life thou gavest, to thee, and render back with my stronger arm, but not less firm soul, the care, protection, love thou hast bestowed on me? Mother, Virgin saint," he continued aloud, flinging himself before the shrine to which we have alluded, "hear, oh hear my prayer! Intercede for me above, that strength, prudence, wisdom may be granted me in the accomplishment of my knightly vows; that my mother, my own mother may be the first and dearest object of my heart: life, fame, and honor I dedicate to her. Spare me, bless me but for her; if danger, imprisonment be unavailingly her doom, let not my spirit waver, nor my strength flag, nor courage nor foresight fail, till she is rescued to liberty and life."
Wrapt in the deep earnest might of prayer, the boy remained kneeling, with clasped hands, and eyes fixed on the Virgin's sculptured face, his spirit inwardly communing, long, long after his impassioned vows had sunk in silence; the thunder yet rolled fearfully, and the blue lightning flashed and played around him with scarce a minute's intermission, but no emotion save that of a son and warrior took possession of his soul. He knew a terrific storm was raging round him, but it drew him not from earthly thoughts and earthly feelings, even while it raised his soul in prayer. Very different was the effect of this lonely vigil and awful night on the imaginative spirit of his companion.
It was not alone the spirit of chivalry which now burned in the noble heart of Nigel Bruce. He was a poet, and the glow[Pg 90]ing hues of poesie invested every emotion of his mind. He loved deeply, devotedly; and love, pure, faithful, hopeful love, appeared to have increased every feeling, whether of grief of joy, in intensity and depth. He felt too deeply to be free from that peculiar whispering within, known by the world as presentiment, and as such so often scorned and contemned as the mere offspring of weak, superstitious minds, when it is in reality one of those distinguishing marks of the higher, more ethereal temperament of genius.
Perchance it is the lively imagination of such minds, which in the very midst of joy can so vividly portray and realize pain, or it may be, indeed, the mysterious voice which links gifted man with a higher class of beings to whom futurity is revealed. Be this as it may, even while the youthful patriot beheld with, a visioned eye the liberty of his country, and rejoiced in thus beholding, there ever came a dim and silent shadowing, a whispering voice, that he should indeed behold it, but not from earth. When the devoted brother and loyal subject pictured his sovereign in very truth a free and honored King, his throne surrounded by nobles and knights of his own free land, and many others, the enthusiast saw not himself amongst them, and yet he rejoiced in the faith such things would be. When the young and ardent lover sate by the side of his betrothed, gazing on her sweet face, and drinking in deeply the gushing tide of joy; when his spirit pictured yet dearer, lovelier, more assured bliss, when Agnes would be in very truth his own, still did that strange thrilling whisper come, and promise he should indeed experience such bliss, but not on earth; and yet he loved, aye, and rejoiced, and there came not one shadow on his bright, beautiful face, not one sad echo in the rich, deep tones of his melodious voice to betray such dim forebodings had found resting in his soul.
Already excited by his conversation with Agnes, the service in which he found himself engaged was not such as to tranquillize his spirit, or still his full heart's quivering throb. His imaginative soul had already flung its halo over the solemn rites which attended his inauguration as a knight. Even to less enthusiastic spirits there was a glow, a glory in this ceremony which seldom failed to awake the soul, and inspire it with high and noble sentiments. It was not therefore strange that these emotions should in the heart of Nigel Bruce obtain that ascen[Pg 91]dency, which to sensitive minds must become pain. Had it been a night of calm and holy stillness, he would in all probability have felt its soothing effect; but as it was, every pulse throbbed and every nerve was strained 'neath his strong sense of the sublime. He could not be said to think, although he had struggled long and fiercely to compose his mind for those devotional exercises he deemed most fitted for the hour. Feeling alone possessed him, overwhelming, indefinable; he deemed it admiration, awe, adoration of Him at whose nod the mighty thunders rolled and the destructive lightnings flashed, but he could not define it such. He did not dream of earth, not even the form of Agnes flashed, as was its wont, before him; no, it was of scenes and sounds undreamed of in earth's philosophy he thought; and as he gazed on the impenetrable darkness, and then beheld it dispersed by the repeated lightning, his excited fancy almost believed that he should see it peopled by the spirits of the mighty dead which slept within those walls, and no particle of terror attended this belief. In the weak superstition of his age, Nigel Bruce had never shared, but firmly and steadfastly he believed, even in his calm and unexcited moments, that there was a link between the living and the dead; that the freed spirits of the one were permitted to hold commune with the other, not in visible shape, but in those thrilling whispers which the spirit knows, while yet it would deny them even to itself. It was the very age of superstition; religion itself was clothed in a veil of solemn mystery, which to minds constituted as Nigel's gave it a deeper, more impressive tone. Its ceremonies, its shrines, its fictions, all gave fresh zest to the imagination, and filled the heart of its votary with a species of devotion and excitement, which would now be considered as mere visionary madness, little in accordance with the true spirit of piety or acceptable to the Most High, but which was then regarded as meritorious; and even as we look back upon the saints and heroes of the past, even now should not be condemned; for, according to the light bestowed, so is devotion demanded and accepted by the God of all.
Nigel Bruce had paused in his hasty walk, and leaning against the pillar round which his armor hung, fixed his eyes for a space on the large oriel window we have named, whose outline was but faintly discernible, save on the left side, which was dimly illumined by the silver lamp burning in the shrine of St.[Pg 92] Stephen, close beside which the youthful warrior stood. The storm had suddenly sunk into an awful and almost portentous silence; and in that brief interval of stillness and gloom, Nigel felt his blood flow more calmly in his veins, his pulses stilled their starting throbs, and the young soldier crossed his arms on his breast, and bent his uncovered head upon them in silent yet earnest prayer.
The deep, solemn chime of the abbey-bell, echoing like a spirit-voice through the arched and silent church, roused him, and he looked up. At the same moment a strong and awfully brilliant flash of lightning darted through the window on which his eyes were fixed, followed by a mighty peal of thunder, longer and louder than any that had come before. For above a minute that blue flash lingered playing, it seemed, on steel, and a cold shuddering thrill crept through the frame of Nigel Bruce, sending the life-blood from his cheek back to his very heart, for either fancy had again assumed her sway, and more vividly than before, or his wild thoughts had found a shape and semblance. Within the arch formed by the high window stood or seemed to stand a tall and knightly form, clad from the gorget to the heel in polished steel; his head was bare, and long, dark hair shaded a face pale and shadowy indeed, but strikingly and eminently noble; there was a scarf across his breast, and on it Nigel recognized the cognizance of his own line, the crest and motto of the Bruce. It could not have been more than a minute that the blue lightning lingered there, yet to his excited spirit it was long enough to impress indelibly and startlingly every trace of that strange vision upon his heart. The face was turned to his, with a solemn yet sorrowful earnestness of expression, and the mailed hand raised on high, seemed pointing unto heaven. The flash passed and all was darkness, the more dense and impenetrable, from the vivid light which had preceded it; but Nigel stirred not, moved not, his every sense absorbed, not in the weakness of mortal terror, but in one overwhelming sensation of awe, which, while it oppressed the spirit well-nigh to pain, caused it to long with an almost sickening intensity for a longer and clearer view of that which had come and passed with the lightning flash. Again the vivid blaze dispersed the gloom, but no shadow met his fixed impassioned gaze. Vision or reality, the form was gone; there was no trace, no sign of that which had been. For several succes[Pg 93]sive flashes Nigel remained gazing on the spot where the mailed form had stood, as if he felt it would, it must again appear; but as time sped, and he saw but space, the soul relaxed from its high-wrought mood, the blood, which had seemed stagnant in his veins, rushed back tumultuously through its varied channels, and Nigel Bruce prostrated himself before the altar, to wrestle with his perturbed spirit till it found calm in prayer.
A right noble and glorious scene did the great hall of the palace present the morning which followed this eventful night. The king, surrounded by his highest prelates and nobles, mingling indiscriminately with the high-born dames and maidens of his court, all splendidly attired, occupied the upper part of the hall, the rest of which was crowded both by his military followers and many of the good citizens of Scone, who flocked in great numbers to behold the august ceremony of the day. Two immense oaken doors at the south side of the hall were flung open, and through them was discerned the large space forming the palace yard, prepared as a tilting-ground, where the new-made knights were to prove their skill. The storm had given place to a soft breezy morning, the cool freshness of which appearing peculiarly grateful from the oppressiveness of the night; light downy clouds sailed over the blue expanse of heaven, tempering without clouding the brilliant rays of the sun. Every face was clothed with smiles, and the loud shouts which hailed the youthful candidates for knighthood, as they severally entered, told well the feeling with which the patriots of Scotland were regarded.
Some twenty youths received the envied honor at the hand of their sovereign this day, but our limits forbid a minute scrutiny of the bearing of any, however well deserving, save of the two whose vigils have already detained us so long. A yet longer and louder shout proclaimed the appearance of the youngest scion of the house of Bruce, and his companion. The daring patriotism of Isabella of Buchan had enshrined her in every heart, and so disposed all men towards her children, that the name of their traitorous father was forgotten.
Led by their godfathers, Nigel by his brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Seaton, and Alan by the Earl of Lennox, their swords, which had been blessed by the abbot at the altar, slung round their necks, they advanced up the hall. There was a glow on the cheek of the young Alan, in which pride[Pg 94] and modesty were mingled; his step at first was unsteady, and his lip was seen to quiver from very bashfulness, as he first glanced round the hall and felt that every eye was turned towards him; but when that glance met his mother's fixed on him, and breathing that might of love which filled her heart, all boyish tremors fled, the calm, staid resolve of manhood took the place of the varying glow upon his cheek, the quivering lip became compressed and firm, and his step faltered not again.
The cheek of Nigel Bruce was pale, but there was firmness in the glance of his bright eye, and a smile unclouded in its joyance on his lip. The frivolous lightness of the courtier, the mad bravado of knight-errantry, which was not uncommon to the times, indeed, were not there. It was the quiet courage of the resolved warrior, the calm of a spirit at peace with itself, shedding its own high feeling and poetic glory over all around him.
On reaching the foot of King Robert's throne, both youths knelt and laid their sheathed swords at his feet. Their armor-bearers then approached, and the ceremony of clothing the candidates in steel commenced; the golden spur was fastened on the left foot of each by his respective godfather, while Athol, Hay, and other nobles advanced to do honor to the youths, by aiding in the ceremony. Nor was it warriors alone.
"Is this permitted, lady?" demanded the king, smiling, as the Countess of Buchan approached the martial group, and, aided by Lennox, fastened the polished cuirass on the form of her son. "Is it permitted for a matron to arm a youthful knight? Is there no maiden to do such inspiring office?"
"Yes, when the knight be one as this, my liege," she answered, in the same tone; "let a matron arm him, good my liege," she added, sadly—"let a mother's hand enwrap his boyish limbs in steel, a mother's blessing mark him thine and Scotland's, that those who watch his bearing in the battle-field may know who sent him there, may thrill his heart with memories of her who stands alone of her ancestral line, that though he bears the name of Comyn, the blood of Fife flows reddest in his veins."
"Arm him and welcome, noble lady," answered the king, and a buzz of approbation ran through the hall; "and may thy noble spirit and dauntless loyalty inspire him; we shall not need a trusty follower while such as he are round us. Yet, in[Pg 95] very deed, my youthful knight must have a lady fair for whom he tilts to-day. Come hither, Isoline; thou lookest verily inclined to envy thy sweet friend her office, and nothing loth to have a loyal knight thyself. Come, come, my pretty one, no blushing now. Lennox, guide those tiny hands aright."
Laughing and blushing, Isoline, the daughter of Lady Campbell, a sister of the Bruce, a graceful child of some thirteen summers, advanced, nothing loth, to obey her royal uncle's summons, and an arch smile of real enjoyment irresistibly stole over the countenance of Alan, dispersing the emotion his mother's words produced.
"Nay, tremble not, sweet one," the king continued, in a lower and yet kinder tone, as he turned from the one youth to the other, and observed that Agnes, overpowered by emotion, had scarcely power to perform her part, despite the whispered words of encouraging affection Nigel murmured in her ear. Imaginative to a degree, which, by her quiet, subdued manners, was never suspected, the simple act of those early flowers withering in her grasp, fresh as they were from the hand of her betrothed, had weighed down her spirits as with an indefinable sense of pain, which she could not combat. The war of the elements, attending as it did the vigil of her lover, had not decreased these feelings, and the morning found her dispirited and shrinking in sensitiveness from the very scene she had anticipated with joy.
"It must not be with a trembling hand the betrothed of a Bruce arms her chosen knight, fair Agnes," continued the king, cheeringly. "She must inspire him with valor and confidence. Smile, then, gentlest and loveliest; we would have all smiles to-day."
And she did smile, but it was a smile of tears, gleaming on her beautiful face as a sunny beam through a glistening spray. One by one the cuirass and shoulder-pieces, the greaves and gauntlets, the gorget and brassards, the joints of which were so beautifully burnished that they shone as mirrors, and so flexible every limb had its free use, enveloped those manly forms. Their swords once again girt to their sides, and once more keeling, the king descended from his throne, and alternately dubbed them knight in the name of God, St. Michael, and St. George.
"Be faithful, brave, and hardy, youthful cavaliers," he said;[Pg 96] "true to the country which claims ye, to the monarch ye have sworn to serve, to the knight from whose sword ye have received the honor ye have craved. Remember, 'tis not the tournay nor the tilted field in which ye will gain renown. For your country let your swords be drawn; against her foes reap laurels. Sir Nigel, 'tis thine to retain unsullied the name thou bearest, to let the Bruce be glorified in thee. And thou, Sir Alan, 'tis thine to earn a name—in very truth, to win thy golden spurs; to prove we do no unwise deed, forgetting thy early years, to do honor to thy mother's son."
Lightly and eagerly the new-made knights sprung to their feet, the very clang of their glittering armor ringing gratefully and rejoicingly in their ears. Their gallant steeds, barded and richly caparisoned, held by their esquires, stood neighing and pawing at the foot of the steps leading from the oaken doors.
Without touching the stirrup, both sprung at the same instant in their saddles; the helmet, with its long graceful plume, was quickly donned; the lance and shield received; the pennon adorning the iron head of each lowered a moment in honor to their sovereign, then waved gayly in air, and then each lance was laid in rest; a trumpet sounded, and onward darted the fiery youths thrice round the lists, displaying a skill and courage in horsemanship which was hailed with repeated shouts of applause. But on the tournay and the banquet which succeeded the ceremony we have described we may not linger, but pass rapidly on to a later period of the same evening.
Sir Nigel and his beautiful betrothed had withdrawn a while from the glittering scene around them; they had done their part in the graceful dance, and now they sought the comparative solitude and stillness of the flower-gemmed terrace, on which the ball-room opened, to speak unreservedly the thoughts which had filled each heart; perchance there were some yet veiled, for the vision of the preceding night, the strange, incongruous fancies it had engendered in the youthful warrior, a solemn vow had buried deep in his own soul, and not even to Agnes, to whom his heart was wont to be revealed, might such thoughts find words; and she shrunk in timidity from avowing the inquietude of her own simple heart, and thus it was that each, for the sake of the other, spoke hopefully and cheeringly, and gayly, until at length they were but conscious of mutual[Pg 97] and devoted love—the darkening mists of the future lost in the radiance of the present sun.
A sudden pause in the inspiring music, the quick advance of all the different groups towards one particular spot, had failed perchance to interrupt the happy converse of the lovers, had not Sir Alan hastily approached them, exclaiming, as he did so—
"For the love of heaven! Nigel, forget Agnes for one moment, and come along with me. A messenger from Pembroke has just arrived, bearing a challenge, or something very like it, to his grace the king; and it may be we shall win our spurs sooner than we looked for this morning. The sight of Sir Henry Seymour makes the war trumpet sound in mine ears. Come, for truly there is something astir."
With Agnes still leaning on his arm, Nigel obeyed the summons of his impatient friend, and joined the group around the king. There was a quiet dignity in the attitude and aspect of Robert Bruce, or it might be the daring patriotism of his enterprise was appreciated by the gallant English knight; certain it was that, though Sir Henry's bearing had been somewhat haughty, his brow knit, and his head still covered, as he passed up the hall, by an irresistible impulse he doffed his helmet as he met the eagle glance of the Bruce, and bowed his head respectfully before him, an example instantly followed by his attendants.
"Sir Henry Seymour is welcome to our court," said the king, courteously; "welcome, whatever message he may bear. How fares it with the chivalric knight and worthy gentleman, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke? Ye bring us a message from him, 'tis said. Needs it a private hearing, sir knight? if so, we are at your service; yet little is it Aymer de Valence can say to Scotland's king which Scotland may not hear."
"Pembroke is well, an please you, and sendeth greeting," replied the knight. "His message, sent as it is to the Bruce, is well fitted for the ears of his followers, therefore may it be spoken here. He sendeth all loving and knightly greeting unto him known until now as Robert Earl of Carrick, and bids him, an he would proclaim and prove the rights he hath assumed, come forth from the narrow precincts of a palace and town, which ill befit a warrior of such high renown, and give him battle in the Park of Methven, near at hand. He challenges him to meet him there, with nobles, knights, and yeomen, who[Pg 98] proclaiming Robert Bruce their sovereign, cast down the gauntlet of defiance and rebellion against their rightful king and mine, his grace of England; he challenges thee, sir knight, or earl, or king, whichever name thou bearest, and dares thee to the field."
"And what if we accept not his daring challenge?" demanded King Robert, sternly, without permitting the expression of his countenance to satisfy in any way the many anxious glances fixed upon it.
"He will proclaim thee coward knight and traitor slave," boldly answered Sir Henry. "In camp or in hall, in lady's bower or tented field, he will proclaim thee recreant; one that took upon himself the state and pomp of royalty without the spirit to defend and prove it."
"Had he done so by our predecessor, Baliol, he had done well," returned the king, calmly. "Nobles, and knights, and gentlemen," he added, the lion spirit of his race kindling in his eye and cheek, "what say ye in accepting the bold challenge of this courtly earl? Do we not read your hearts as well as our own? Ye have chafed and fretted that we have retained ye so long inactive: in very truth your monarch's spirit chafed and fretted too. We will do battle with this knightly foe, and give him, in all chivalric and honorable courtesy, the meeting he desires."
One startling and energetic shout burst simultaneously from the warriors around, forming a wild and thrilling response to their sovereign's words. In vain they sought to restrain that outbreak of rejoicing, in respect to the royal presence; they had pined, they had yearned for action, and Sir Henry was too good a knight himself not to understand to the full the patriotic fervor and chivalrous spirit from which that shout had sprung. Proudly and joyfully the Bruce looked on his devoted adherents, and then addressed the English knight.
"Thou hast our answer, good Sir Henry," he said; "more thou couldst scarcely need. Commend us to your master, and take heed thou sayest all that thou hast heard and seen in answer to his challenge. In the Park of Methven, three days hence, he may expect the King of Scotland and his patriot troops with him, to do battle unto death. Edward, good brother, thou, Seaton, and the Lord of Douglas, conduct this worthy knight in all honor from the hall. Thou hast our answer."[Pg 99]
The knight bowed low, but ere he retreated he spoke again. "I am charged with yet another matter, an it so please you," he said, evidently studying to avoid all royal titles, although the bearing of the king rendered his task rather more difficult than he could have imagined; "a matter of small import, truly, yet must it be spoken. 'Tis rumored that you have amid your household a child, a boy, whose father was a favored servant of my gracious liege and yours, King Edward. The Earl of Pembroke, in the name of his sovereign and of the child's father, bids me demand him of thee, as having, from his tender years and inexperience, no will nor voice in this matter, he having been brought here by his mother, who, saving your presence, had done better to have remembered her duty to her husband than encourage rebellion against her king."
"Keep to the import of thy message, nor give thy tongue such license, sir," interrupted the Bruce, sternly; and many an eye flashed, and many a hand sought his sword. "Sir Alan of Buchan, stand forth and give thine own answer to this imperative demand; 'tis to thee, methinks, its import would refer. Thou hast wisdom and experience, if not years enough, to answer for thyself.
"Tell Aymer de Valence, would he seek me, he will find me by the side of my sovereign King Robert, in Methven Park, three days hence," boldly and quickly answered the young soldier, stepping forward from his post in the circle, and fronting the knight. "Tell him I am here of my own free will, to acknowledge Robert the Bruce as mine and Scotland's king; to defy the tyrant Edward, even to the death; tell him 'tis no child he seeks, but a knight and soldier, who will meet him on the field."
"It would seem we are under some mistake, young sir," replied Sir Henry, gazing with unfeigned admiration on the well-knit frame and glowing features of the youthful knight. "I speak of and demand the surrender of the son and heir of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, who was represented to me as a child of some ten or thirteen summers; 'tis with him, not with thee, my business treats."
"And 'tis the son—I know not how long heir—of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, who speaks with thee, sir knight. It may well be, my very age, my very existence hath been forgotten by my father," he added, with a fierceness and bitterness[Pg 100] little in accordance with his years, "aye, and would have been remembered no more, had not the late events recalled them; yet 'tis even so—and that thy memory prove not treacherous, there lies my gage. Foully and falsely hast thou spoken of Isabella of Buchan, and her honor is dear to her son as is his own. In Methven Park we two shall meet, sir knight, and the child, the puny stripling, who hath of his own nor voice nor will, will not fail thee, be thou sure."
Proudly, almost sternly, the boy fixed his flashing orbs on the English knight, and without removing his glance, strode to the side of his mother and drew her arm within his own. There was something in the accent, in the saddened yet resolute expression of his countenance, which forbade all rejoinder, not from Sir Henry alone, but even from his own friends. Seymour raised the gage, and with a meaning smile secured it in his helmet; then respectfully saluting the group around him, withdrew, attended as desired by the Bruce.
"Heed it not, my boy, my own noble boy!" said the Countess of Buchan, in those low, earnest, musical tones peculiarly her own; for she saw that there was a quivering in the lip, a sudden paleness in the cheek of her son, as he gazed up in her lace, when he thought they stood alone, which denoted internal emotion yet stronger than that which had inspired his previous words. "Their scorn, their contumely, I heed as little as the mountain rock the hailstones which fall upon its sides, in vain seeking to penetrate or wound. Nay, I could smile at them in very truth, were it not that compelled as I am to act alone, to throw aside as worthless and rejected those natural ties I had so joyed to wear, my heart seems closed to smiles; but for words as those, or yet harsher scorn, grieve not, my noble boy, they have no power to fret or hurt me."
"Yet to hear them speak in such tone of thee—thee, whose high soul and noble courage would shame a score of some who write themselves men!—thee, who with all a woman's loving heart, and guileless, unselfish, honorable mind, hath all a warrior's stern resolve, a patriot's noble purpose! Mother, mother, how may thy son brook scorn and falsity, and foul calumny cast upon thee?" and there was a choking suffocation in his throat, filling his eyes perforce with tears; and had it not been that manhood struggled for dominion, he would have flung himself upon his mother's breast and wept.[Pg 101]
"As a soldier and a man, my son," she drew him closer to her as she spoke; "as one who, knowing and feeling the worth of the contemned one, is conscious that the foul tongues of evil men can do no ill, but fling back the shame upon themselves. Arouse thee, my beloved son. Alas! when I look on thee, on thy bright face, on those graceful limbs, so supple now in health and life, and feel to what my deed may have devoted thee, my child, my child, I need not slanderous tongues to grieve me!"
"And doth the Countess of Buchan repent that deed?" asked the rich sonorous voice of the Bruce, who, unobserved, had heard their converse. "Would she recall that which she hath done?"
"Sire, not so," she answered; "precious as is my child to this lone heart—inexpressibly dear and precious—yet if the liberty of his country demand me to resign him, the call shall be obeyed."
"Speak not thus, noble lady," returned the king, cheerily. "He is but lent, Scotland asks no more; and when heaven smiles on this poor country, smiles in liberty and peace, trust me, such devotedness will not have been in vain. Our youthful knight will lay many a wreath of laurel at his mother's feet, nor will there then be need to guard her name from scorn. See what new zest and spirit have irradiated the brows of our warlike guests; we had scarce deemed more needed than was there before, yet the visit of Sir Henry Seymour, bearing as it did a challenge to strife and blood, hath given fresh lightness to every step, new joyousness to every tone. Is not this as it should be?"
"Aye, as it must be, sire, while loyal hearts and patriot spirits form thy court. Nobly and gallantly was the answer given to Pembroke's challenge. Yet pardon me, sire, was it wise—was it well?"
"Its wisdom, lady, rests with its success in the hands of a higher power," answered the king, gravely, yet kindly. "Other than we did we could not do; rashly and presumptuously we would not have left our quarters. Not for the mere chase of, mad wish for glory would we have risked the precious lives of our few devoted friends, but challenged as we were, the soul of Bruce could not have spoken other than he did; nor do we repent, nay, we rejoice that the stern duty of inaction is over.[Pg 102] Thine eye tells me thou canst understand this, lady, therefore we say no more, save to beseech thee to inspire our consort with the necessity of this deed; she trembles for the issue of our daring. See how grave and sad she looks, so lately as she was all smiles."
The countess did not reply, but hastened to the side of the amiable, but yet too womanly Queen Margaret, and gently, but invisibly sought to soothe her fears; and she partially succeeded, for the queen ever seemed to feel herself a bolder and firmer character when in the presence and under the influence of Isabella of Buchan.