Rumors of the fatal issue of the engagement at Methven speedily reached Scone, laden, of course, with, yet more disastrous tidings than had foundation in reality. King Robert, it was said, and all his nobles and knights—nay, his whole army—were cut off to a man; the king, if not taken prisoner, was left dead on the field, and all Scotland lay again crushed and enslaved at the feet of Edward. For four-and-twenty hours did the fair inhabitants of the palace labor under this belief, well-nigh s
unned beneath the accumulation of misfortune. It was curious to remark the different forms in which affliction appeared in different characters, The queen, in loud sobs and repeated wailing, at one time deplored her own misery; at others, accused her husband of rashness and madness. Why had he not taken her advice and remained quiet? Why could he not have been contented with the favor of Edward and a proud, fair heritage? What good did he hope to get for himself by assuming the crown of so rude and barren a land as Scotland? Had she not told him he was but a summer king, that the winter would soon blight his prospects and nip his budding hopes; and had she not proved herself wiser even than he was himself? and then she would suddenly break off in these reproaches to declare that, if he were a prisoner, she would go to him; she would remain with him to the last; she would prove how much she idolized him—her own, her brave, her noble Robert. And vain was every effort on the part of her sisters-in-law and the Countess of Buchan, and other of her friends, to mitigate these successive bursts of sorrow. The Lady Seaton, of a stronger mind, yet struggled with despondency, yet strove to hope, to believe all was not as overwhelming as had been described; although, if rumor were indeed true, she had lost a husband and a son, the gallant young Earl of Mar, whom she had trained to all noble deeds and honorable thoughts, for he had been fatherless from infancy. Lady Mary could forget her own deep anxieties, her own fearful forebodings, silently and unobservedly to watch, to follow, to tend the Countess of Buchan, whose marble cheek and lip, and somewhat sterner expression of countenance than usual, alone[Pg 117] betrayed the anxiety passing within, for words it found not. She could share with her the task of soothing, of cheering Agnes, whose young spirit lay crushed beneath this heavy blow. She did not complain, she did not murmur, but evidently struggled to emulate her mother's calmness, for she would bend over her frame and endeavor to continue her embroidery. But those who watched her, marked her frequent shudder, the convulsive sob, the tiny hands pressed closely together, and then upon her eyes, as if to still their smarting throbs; and Isoline, who sat in silence on a cushion at her feet, could catch such low whispered words as these—
"Nigel, Nigel, could I but know thy fate! Dead, dead!—could I not die with thee? Imprisoned, have I not a right to follow thee; to tend, to soothe thee? Any thing, oh, any thing, but this horrible suspense! Alan, my brother, thou too, so young, to die."
The morning of the second day brought other and less distressing rumors; all had not fallen, all were not taken. There were tales of courage, of daring gallantry, of mighty struggles almost past belief; but what were they, even in that era of chivalry, to the heart sinking under apprehensions, the hopes just springing up amidst the wild chaos of thoughts to smile a moment, to be crushed 'neath suspense, uncertainty, the next? Still the eager tones of conjecture, the faintest-spoken whispers of renewed hope, were better than the dead stillness, the heavy hush of despair.
And the queen's apartments, in which at sunset all her friends had assembled, presented less decided sounds of mourning and of wail, than the previous day. Margaret was indeed still one minute plunged in tears and sobs, and the next hoping more, believing more than any one around her. Agnes had tacitly accompanied her mother and Lady Mary to the royal boudoir, but she had turned in very sickness of heart from all her companions, and remained standing in a deep recess formed by the high and narrow casement, alone, save Isoline, who still clung to her side, pale, motionless as the marble statue near her, whose unconscious repose she envied.
"Speak, Isabella, why will you not speak to me?" said the queen, fretfully. "My husband bade me look to thee for strength, for support under care and affliction like to this, yet[Pg 118] thou keepest aloof from me; thou hast words of comfort, of cheering for all save me."
"Not so, royal lady, not so," she answered, as with a faint, scarcely perceptible smile, she advanced to the side of her royal mistress, and took her hand in hers. "I have spoken, I have urged, entreated, conjured thee to droop not; for thy husband's sake, to hope on, despite the terrible rumors abroad. I have besought thee to seek firmness for his sake; but thou didst but tell me, Isabella, Isabella, thou canst not feel as I do, he is naught to thee but thy king; to me, what is he not? king, hero, husband—all, my only all; and I have desisted, lady, for I deemed my words offended, my counsel unadvised, and looked on but as cold and foolish."
"Nay, did I say all this to thee? Isabella, forgive me, for indeed, indeed, I knew it not," replied Margaret, her previous fretfulness subsiding into a softened and less painful burst of weeping. "He is in truth, my all, my heart's dearest, best, and without him, oh! what am I? even a cipher, a reed, useless to myself, to my child, as to all others. I am not like thee, Isabella—would, would I were; I should be more worthy of my Robert's love, and consequently dearer to his heart. I can be but a burden to him now."
"Hush, hush! would he not chide thee for such words, my Margaret?" returned the countess, soothingly, and in a much lower voice, speaking as she would to a younger sister. "Had he not deemed thee worthy, would he have made thee his? oh, no, believe it not; he is too true, too honorable for such thought."
"He loved me, because he saw I loved," whispered the queen, perceiving that her companions had left her well-nigh alone with the countess, and following, as was her custom, every impulse of her fond but ill-regulated heart. "I had not even strength to conceal that—that truth which any other would have died rather than reveal. He saw it and his noble spirit was touched; and he has been all, all, aye, more than I could have dreamed, to me—so loving and so true."
"Then why fancy thyself a burden, not a joy to him, sweet friend?" demanded Isabella of Buchan, the rich accents of her voice even softer and sweeter than usual, for there was something in the clinging confidence of the queen it was impossible not to love.[Pg 119]
"I did not, I could not, for he cherished me so fondly till this sudden rising—this time, when his desperate enterprise demands energy and firmness, even from the humblest female, how much more from the Bruce's wife! and his manner is not changed towards me, nor his love. I know he loves me, cherishes me, as he ever did; but he must pity my weakness, my want of nerve; when he compares me to himself, he must look on me with almost contempt. For now it is, now that clearer than ever his character stands forth in such glorious majesty, such moderation, such a daring yet self-governed spirit, that I feel how utterly unworthy I am of him, how little capable to give that spirit, that mind the reflection it must demand; and when my weak fears prevail, my weak fancies speak only of danger and defeat, how can he bear with me? Must I not become, if I am not now, a burden?"
"No, dearest Margaret," replied the countess, instantly. "The mind that can so well appreciate the virtues of her husband will never permit herself, through weakness and want of nerve, to become a burden to him. Thou hast but to struggle with these imaginary terrors, to endeavor to encourage, instead of to dispirit, and he will love and cherish thee even more than hadst thou never been unnerved."
"Let him but be restored to me, and I will do all this. I will make myself more worthy of his love; but, oh, Isabella, while I speak this, perhaps he is lost to me forever; I may never see his face, never hear that tone of love again!" and a fresh flood of weeping concluded her words.
"Nay, but thou wilt—I know thou wilt," answered the countess, cheeringly. "Trust me, sweet friend, though defeat may attend him a while, though he may pass through trial and suffering ere the goal be gained, Robert Bruce will eventually deliver his country—will be her king, her savior—will raise her in the scale of nations, to a level even with the highest, noblest, most deserving. He is not lost to thee; trial will but prove his worth unto his countrymen even more than would success."
"And how knowest thou these things, my Isabella?" demanded Margaret, looking up in her face, with a half-playful, half-sorrowful smile. "Hast thou the gift of prophecy?"
"Prophecy!" repeated the countess, sadly. "Alas! 'tis but the character of Robert which hath inspired my brighter[Pg 120] vision. Had I the gift of prophecy, my fond heart would not start and quiver thus, when it vainly strives to know the fate of my only son. I, too, have anxiety, lady, though it find not words."
"Thou hast, thou hast, indeed; and yet I, weak, selfish as I am, think only of myself. Stay by me, Isabella; oh, do not leave me, I am stronger by thy side."
It was growing darker and darker, and the hopes that, ere night fell, new and more trustworthy intelligence of the movements of the fugitives would be received were becoming fainter and fainter on every heart. Voices were hushed to silence, or spoke only in whispers. Half an hour passed thus, when the listless suffering on the lovely face of Agnes was observed by Isoline to change to an expression of intense attention.
"Hearest thou no step?" she said, in a low, piercing whisper, and laying a cold and trembling hand on Isoline's arm. "It is, it is his—it is Nigel's; he has not fallen—he is spared!" and she started up, a bright flush on her cheek, her hands pressed convulsively on her heart.
"Nay, Agnes, there is no sound, 'tis but a fancy," but even while she spoke, a rapid step was heard along the corridor, and a shadow darkened the doorway—but was that Nigel? There was no plume, no proud crest on his helmet; its vizor was still closely barred, and a surcoat of coarse black stuff was thrown over his armor, without any decoration to display or betray the rank of the wearer. A faint cry of alarm broke from the queen and many of her friends, but with one bound Agnes sprang to the intruder, whose arms were open to receive her, and wildly uttering "Nigel!" fainted on his bosom.
"And didst thou know me even thus, beloved?" he murmured, rapidly unclasping his helmet and dashing it from him, to imprint repeated kisses on her cheek. "Wake, Agnes, best beloved, my own sweet love; what hadst thou heard that thou art thus? Oh, wake, smile, speak to me: 'tis thine own Nigel calls."
And vainly, till that face smiled again on him in consciousness, would the anxious inmates of that room have sought and received intelligence, had he not been followed by Lord Douglas, Fitz-Alan, and others, their armor and rank concealed as was Nigel's, who gave the required information as eagerly as it was desired.[Pg 121]
"Robert—my king, my husband—where is he—why is he not here?" reiterated Margaret, vainly seeking to distinguish his figure amid the others, obscured as they were by the rapidly-increasing darkness. "Why is he not with ye—why is he not here?"
"And he is here, Meg; here to chide thy love as less penetrating, less able to read disguise or concealment than our gentle Agnes there. Nay, weep not, dearest; my hopes are as strong, my purpose as unchanged, my trust in heaven as fervent as it was when I went forth to battle. Trial and suffering must be mine a while, I have called it on my own head; but still, oh, still thy Robert shall deliver Scotland—shall cast aside her chains."
The deep, manly voice of the king acted like magic on the depressed spirits of those around him; and though there was grief, bitter, bitter grief to tell, though many a heart's last lingering hopes were crushed 'neath that fell certainty, which they thought to have pictured during the hours of suspense, and deemed themselves strengthened to endure, yet still 'twas a grief that found vent in tears—grief that admitted of soothing, of sympathy—grief time might heal, not the harrowing agony of grief half told—hopes rising to be crushed.
Still did the Countess of Buchan cling to the massive arm of the chair which Margaret had left, utterly powerless, wholly incapacitated from asking the question on which her very life seemed to depend. Not even the insensibility of her Agnes had had the power to rouse her from the stupor of anxiety which had spread over her, sharpening every faculty and feeling indeed, but rooting her to the spot. Her boy, her Alan, he was not amongst those warriors; she heard not the beloved accents of his voice; she saw not his boyish form—darkness could not deceive her. Disguise would not prevent him, were he amongst his companions, from seeking her embrace. One word would end that anguish, would speak the worst, end it—had he fallen!
The king looked round the group anxiously and inquiringly.
"The Countess of Buchan?" he said; "where is our noble friend? she surely hath a voice to welcome her king, even though he return to her defeated."
"Sire, I am here," she said, but with difficulty; and Robert,[Pg 122] as if he understood it, could read all she was enduring, hastened towards her, and took both her cold hands in his.
"I give thee joy," he said, in accents that reassured her on the instant. "Nobly, gallantly, hath thy patriot boy proved himself thy son; well and faithfully hath he won his spurs, and raised the honor of his mother's olden line. He bade me greet thee with all loving duty, and say he did but regret his wounds that they prevented his attending me, and throwing himself at his mother's feet."
"He is wounded, then, my liege?" Robert felt her hands tremble in his hold.
"It were cruel to deceive thee, lady—desperately but not dangerously wounded. On the honor of a true knight, there is naught to alarm, though something, perchance, to regret; for he pines and grieves that it may be yet a while ere he recover sufficient strength to don his armor. It is not loss of blood, but far more exhaustion, from the superhuman exertions that he made. Edward and Alexander are with him; the one a faithful guard, in himself a host, the other no unskilful leech: trust me, noble lady, there is naught to fear."
He spoke, evidently to give her time to recover the sudden revulsion of feeling which his penetrating eye discovered had nearly overpowered her, and he succeeded; ere he ceased, that quivering of frame and lip had passed, and Isabella of Buchan again stood calm and firm, enabled to inquire all particulars of her child, and then join in the council held as to the best plan to be adopted with regard to the safety of the queen and her companions.
In Scone, it was evident, they could not remain, for already the towns and villages around, which had all declared for the Bruce, were hurrying in the greatest terror to humble themselves before Pembroke, and entreat his interference in their favor with his sovereign. There was little hope, even if Scone remained faithful to his interests, that she would be enabled to defend herself from the attacks of the English; and it would be equally certain, that if the wife of Bruce, and the wives and daughters of so many of his loyal followers remained within her walls, to obtain possession of their persons would become Pembroke's first object. It remained to decide whether they would accompany their sovereign to his mountain fastnesses and expose themselves to all the privations and hardships which[Pg 123] would inevitably attend a wandering life, or that they should depart under a safe escort to Norway, whose monarch was friendly to the interests of Scotland. This latter scheme the king very strongly advised, representing in vivid colors the misery they might have to endure if they adhered to him; the continual danger of their falling into the hands of Edward, and even could they elude this, how was it possible their delicate frames, accustomed as they were to luxury and repose, could sustain the rude fare, the roofless homes, the continued wandering amid the crags and floods and deserts of the mountains. He spoke eloquently and feelingly, and there was a brief silence when he concluded. Margaret had thrown her arms round her husband, and buried her face on his bosom; her child clung to her father's knee, and laid her soft cheek caressingly by his. Isabella of Buchan, standing a little aloof, remained silent indeed, but no one who gazed on her could doubt her determination or believe she wavered. Agnes was standing in the same recess she had formerly occupied, but how different was the expression of her features. The arm of Nigel was twined round her, his head bent down to hers in deep and earnest commune; he was pleading against his own will and feelings it seemed, and though he strove to answer every argument, to persuade her it was far better she should seek safety in a foreign land, her determination more firmly expressed than could have been supposed from her yielding disposition, to abide with him, in weal or in woe, to share his wanderings, his home, be it roofless on the mountain, or within palace walls; that she was a Highland girl, accustomed to mountain paths and woody glens, nerved to hardship and toil—this determination, we say, contrary as it was to his eloquent pleadings, certainly afforded Nigel no pain, and might his beaming features be taken as reply, it was fraught with unmingled pleasure. In a much shorter time than we have taken to describe this, however, the queen had raised her head, and looking up in her husband's face with an expression of devotedness, which gave her countenance a charm it had never had before, fervently exclaimed—
"Robert, come woe or weal, I will abide with thee; her husband's side is the best protection for a wife; and if wandering and suffering be his portion, who will soothe and cheer as the wife of his love? My spirit is but cowardly, my will but weak;[Pg 124] but by thee I may gain the strength which in foreign lands could never be my own. Imaginary terrors, fancied horrors would be worse, oh, how much worse than reality! and when we met again I should be still less worthy of thy love. No, Robert, no! urge me not, plead to me no more. My friends may do as they will, but Margaret abides with thee."
"And who is there will pause, will hesitate, when their queen hath spoken thus?" continued the Countess of Buchan in a tone that to Margaret's ear whispered approval and encouragement. "Surely, there is none here whose love for their country is so weak, their loyalty to their sovereign of such little worth, that at the first defeat, the first disappointment, they would fly over seas for safety, and contentedly leave the graves of their fathers, the hearths of their ancestors, the homes of their childhood to be desecrated by the chains of a foreign tyrant, by the footsteps of his hirelings? Oh, do not let us waver! Let us prove that though the arm of woman is weaker than that of man, her spirit is as firm, her heart as true; and that privation, and suffering, and hardship encountered amid the mountains of our land, the natural fastnesses of Scotland, in company with our rightful king, our husbands, our children—all, all, aye, death itself, were preferable to exile and separation. 'Tis woman's part to gild, to bless, and make a home, and still, still we may do this, though our ancestral homes be in the hands of Edward. Scotland has still her sheltering breast for all her children; and shall we desert her now?"
"No, no, no!" echoed from every side, enthusiasm kindling with her words. "Better privation and danger in Scotland, than safety and comfort elsewhere."
Nor was this the mere decision of the moment, founded on its enthusiasm. The next morning found them equally firm, equally determined; even the weak and timid Margaret rose in that hour of trial superior to herself, and preparations were rapidly made for their departure. Nor were the prelates of Scotland, who had remained at Scone during the king's engagement, backward in encouraging and blessing their decision. His duties prevented the Abbot of Scone accompanying them; but it was with deep regret he remained behind, not from any fear of the English, for a warrior spirit lurked beneath those episcopal robes, but from his deep reverence for the enterprise, and love for the person of King Robert. He acceded to the[Pg 125] necessity of remaining in his abbey with the better grace, as he fondly hoped to preserve the citizens in the good faith and loyalty they had so nobly demonstrated. The Archbishop of St. Andrew's and the Bishop of Glasgow determined on following their sovereign to the death; and the spirit of Robert, wounded as it had been, felt healed and soothed, and inspired afresh, as the consciousness of his power over some true and faithful hearts, of every grade and rank of either sex, became yet more strongly proved in this hour of depression. He ceased to speak of seeking refuge for his fair companions in another land, their determination to abide with him, and their husbands and sons, was too heartfelt, too unwavering, to allow of a hope to change it; and he well knew that their presence, instead of increasing the cares and anxieties of his followers, would rather lessen, them, by shedding a spirit of chivalry even over the weary wanderings he knew must be their portion for a while, by gilding with the light of happier days the hours of darkness that might surround them.