The queen and her companions were conveyed in detachments from the palace and town of Scone, the Bruce believing, with justice, they would thus attract less notice, and be better able to reach the mountains in safety. The Countess of Buchan, her friend Lady Mary, Agnes, and Isoline, attended by Sir Nigel, were the first to depart, for though she spoke it not, deep anxiety was on the mother's heart for the fate of her boy. They mostly left Scone at different hours of the night; and the second day
from the king's arrival, the palace was untenanted, all signs of the gallant court, which for a brief space had shed such lustre, such rays of hope on the old town, were gone, and sorrowfully and dispiritedly the burghers and citizens went about their several occupations, for their hearts yet throbbed in loyalty and patriotism, though hope they deemed was wholly at an end. Still they burned with indignation at every intelligence of new desertions to Edward, and though the power of Pembroke compelled them to bend unwillingly to the yoke, it was as a bow[Pg 126] too tightly strung, which would snap rather than use its strength in the cause of Edward.
A few weeks' good nursing from his mother and sister, attended as it was by the kindness and warm friendship of the sovereign he adored, and the constant care of Nigel, speedily restored the heir of Buchan, if not entirely to his usual strength, at least with sufficient to enable him to accompany the royal wanderers wherever they pitched their tent, and by degrees join in the adventurous excursions of his young companions to supply them with provender, for on success in hunting entirely depended their subsistence.
It was in itself a strange romance, the life they led. Frequently the blue sky was their only covering, the purple heath their only bed; nor would the king fare better than his followers. Eagerly, indeed, the young men ever exerted themselves to form tents or booths of brushwood, branches of trees, curiously and tastefully interwoven with the wild flowers that so luxuriantly adorned the rocks, for the accommodation of the faithful companions who preferred this precarious existence with them, to comfort, safety, and luxury in a foreign land. Nature, indeed, lavishly supplied them with beautiful materials, and where the will was good, exertion proved but a new enjoyment. Couches and cushions of the softest moss formed alike seats and places of repose; by degrees almost a village of these primitive dwellings would start into being, in the centre of some wild rocks, which formed natural barriers around them, watered, perhaps, by some pleasant brook rippling and gushing by in wild, yet soothing music, gemmed by its varied flowers.
Here would be the rendezvous for some few weeks; here would Margaret and her companions rest a while from their fatiguing wanderings; and could they have thought but of the present, they would have been completely happy. Here would their faithful knights return laden with the spoils of the chase, or with some gay tale of danger dared, encountered, and conquered; here would the song send its full tone amid the responding echoes. The harp and muse of Nigel gave a refinement and delicacy to these meetings, marking them, indeed, the days of chivalry and poetry. Even Edward Bruce, the stern, harsh, dark, passioned warrior, even he felt the magic of the hour, and now that the courage of Nigel had been proved, gave willing ear, and would be among the first to bid him wake his[Pg 127] harp, and soothe the troubled visions of the hour; and Robert, who saw so much of his own soul reflected in his young brother, mingled as it was with yet more impassioned fervor, more beautiful, more endearing qualities, for Nigel had needed not trial to purify his soul, and mark him out a patriot. Robert, in very truth, loved him, and often would share with him his midnight couch, his nightly watchings, that he might confide to that young heart the despondency, the hopelessness, that to none other might be spoken, none other might suspect—the secret fear that his crime would be visited on his unhappy country, and he forbidden to secure her freedom even by the sacrifice of his life.
"If it be so, it must be so; then be thou her savior, her deliverer, my Nigel," he would often urge; "droop not because I may have departed; struggle on, do as thy soul prompts, and success will, nay, must attend thee; for thou art pure and spotless, and well deserving of all the glory, the blessedness, that will attend the sovereign of our country freed from chains; thou art, in truth, deserving of all this, but I—"
"Peace, peace, my brother!" would be Nigel's answer; "thou, only thou shalt deliver our country, shall be her free, her patriot king! Have we not often marked the glorious sun struggling with the black masses of clouds which surround and obscure his rising, struggling, and in vain, to penetrate their murky folds, and deluge the world with light, shining a brief moment, and then immersed in darkness, until, as he nears the western horizon, the heaviest clouds flee before him, the spotless azure spreadeth its beautiful expanse, the brilliant rays dart on every side, warming and cheering the whole earth with reviving beams, and finally sinking to his rest in a flood of splendor, more dazzling, more imposing than ever attends his departure when his dawn hath been one of joy. Such is thy career, my brother; such will be thy glorious fate. Oh, droop not even to me—to thyself! Hope on, strive on, and thou shalt succeed!"
"Would I had thy hopeful spirit, my Nigel, an it pictured and believed things as these!" mournfully would the Bruce reply, and clasp the young warrior to his heart; but it was only Nigel's ear that heard these whispers of despondency, only Nigel's eye which could penetrate the inmost folds of that royal heart. Not even to his wife—his Margaret, whose faithfulness[Pg 128] in these hours of adversity had drawn her yet closer to her husband—did he breathe aught save encouragement and hope; and to his followers he was the same as he had been from the first, resolute, unwavering; triumphing over every obstacle; cheering the faint-hearted; encouraging the desponding; smiling with his young followers, ever on the alert to provide amusement for them, to approve, guide, instruct; gallantly and kindly to smooth the path for his female companions, joining in every accommodation for them, even giving his manual labor with the lowest of his followers, if his aid would lessen fatigue, or more quickly enhance comfort. And often and often in the little encampment we have described, when night fell, and warrior and dame would assemble, in various picturesque groups, on the grassy mound, the king, seated in the midst of them, would read aloud, and divert even the most wearied frame and careworn mind by the stirring scenes and chivalric feelings his MSS. recorded. The talent of deciphering manuscripts, indeed of reading any thing, was one seldom attained or even sought for in the age of which we treat; the sword and spear were alike the recreation and the business of the nobles. Reading and writing were in general confined to monks, and the other clergy; but Robert, even as his brother Nigel, possessed both these accomplishments, although to the former their value never seemed so fully known as in his wanderings. His readings were diversified by rude narratives or tales, which he demanded in return from his companions, and many a hearty laugh would resound from the woodland glades, at the characteristic humor with which these demands were complied with: the dance, too, would diversify these meetings. A night of repose might perhaps succeed, to be disturbed at its close by a cause for alarm, and those pleasant resting-places must be abandoned, the happy party be divided, and scattered far and wide, to encounter fatigue, danger, perchance even death, ere they met again.
Yet still they drooped not, murmured not. No voice was ever heard to wish the king's advice had been taken, and they had sought refuge in Norway. Not even Margaret breathed one sigh, dropped one tear, in her husband's presence, although many were the times that she would have sunk from exhaustion, had not Isabella of Buchan been near as her guardian angel to revive, encourage, infuse a portion of her own spirit in the weaker heart, which so confidingly clung to her. The youngest[Pg 129] and most timid maiden, the oldest and most ailing man, still maintained the same patriotic spirit and resolute devotion which had upheld them at first. "The Bruce and Scotland" were the words imprinted on their souls, endowed with a power to awake the sinking heart, and rouse the fainting frame.
To Agnes and Nigel, it was shrewdly suspected, these wanderings in the centre of magnificent nature, their hearts open to each other, revelling in the scenes around them, were seasons of unalloyed enjoyment, happiness more perfect than the state and restraint of a court. Precarious, indeed, it was, but even in moments of danger they were not parted; for Nigel was ever the escort of the Countess of Buchan, and danger by his side lost half its terror to Agnes. He left her side but to return to it covered with laurels, unharmed, uninjured, even in the midst of foes; and so frequently did this occur, that the fond, confiding spirit of the young Agnes folded itself around the belief that he bore a charmed life; that evil and death could not injure one so faultless and beloved. Their love grew stronger with each passing week; for nature, beautiful nature, is surely the field of that interchange of thought, for that silent commune of soul so dear to those that love. The simplest flower, the gushing brooks, the frowning hills, the varied hues attending the rising and the setting of the sun, all were turned to poetry when the lips of Nigel spoke to the ears of love. The mind of Agnes expanded before these rich communings. She was so young, so guileless, her character moulded itself on his. She learned yet more to comprehend, to appreciate the nobility of his soul, to cling yet closer to him, as the consciousness of the rich treasure she possessed in his love became more and more unfolded to her view. The natural fearfulness of her disposition gave way, and the firmness, the enthusiasm of purpose, took possession of her heart, secretly and silently, indeed; for to all, save to herself, she was the same gentle, timid, clinging girl that she had ever been.
So passed the summer months; but as winter approached, and the prospects of the king remained as apparently hopeless and gloomy as they were on his first taking refuge in the mountains, it was soon pretty evident that some other plan must be resorted to; for strong as the resolution might be, the delicate frames of his female companions, already suffering from the privations to which they had been exposed, could not sus[Pg 130]tain the intense cold and heavy snows peculiar to the mountain region. Gallantly as the king had borne himself in every encounter with the English and Anglo-Scots, sustaining with unexampled heroism repeated defeats and blighted hopes, driven from one mountainous district by the fierce opposition of its inhabitants, from another by a cessation of supplies, till famine absolutely threatened, closely followed by its grim attendant, disease, all his efforts to collect and inspire his countrymen with his own spirit, his own hope, were utterly and entirely fruitless, for his enemies appeared to increase around him, the autumn found him as far, if not further, from the successful termination of his desires than he had been at first.
All Scotland lay at the feet of his foe. John of Lorn, maternally related to the slain Red Comyn, had collected his forces to the number of a thousand, and effectually blockaded his progress through the district of Breadalbane, to which he had retreated from a superior body of English, driving him to a narrow pass in the mountains, where the Bruce's cavalry had no power to be of service; and had it not been for the king's extraordinary exertions in guarding the rear, and there checking the desperate fury of the assailants, and interrupting their headlong pursuit of the fugitives, by a strength, activity, and prudence, that in these days would seem incredible, the patriots must have been cut off to a man. Here it was that the family of Lorn obtained possession of that brooch of Bruce, which even to this day is preserved as a relic, and lauded as a triumph, proving how nearly their redoubted enemy had fallen into their hands. Similar struggles had marked his progress through the mountains ever since the defeat of Methven; but vain was every effort of his foes to obtain possession of his person, destroy his energy, and thus frustrate his purpose. Perth, Inverness, Argyle, and Aberdeen had alternately been the scene of his wanderings. The middle of autumn found him with about a hundred followers, amongst whom were the Countess of Buchan and her son, amid the mountains which divide Kincardine from the southwest boundary of Aberdeen. The remainder of his officers and men, divided into small bands, each with some of their female companions under their especial charge, were scattered over the different districts, as better adapted to concealment and rest.
It was that part of the year when day gives place to[Pg 131] night so suddenly, that the sober calm of twilight even appears denied to us. The streams rushed by, turbid and swollen from the heavy autumnal rains. A rude wind had robbed most of the trees of their foliage; the sere and withered leaves, indeed, yet remained on the boughs, beautiful even in, their decay, but the slightest breath would carry them away from their resting-places, and the mountain passes were incumbered, and often slippery from the fallen leaves. The mountains looked frowning and bare, the pine and fir bent and rocked in their craggy cradles, and the wind moaned through their dark branches sadly and painfully. The sun had, indeed, shone fitfully through the day, but still the scene was one of melancholy desolation, and the heart of the Countess of Buchan, bold and firm in general, could not successfully resist the influence of Nature's sadness. She sat comparatively alone; a covering had, indeed, been thrown over some thick poles, which interwove with brushwood, and with a seat and couch of heather, which was still in flower, formed a rude tent, and was destined for her repose; but until night's dark mantle was fully unfurled, she had preferred the natural seat of a jutting crag, sheltered from the wind by an overhanging rock and some spreading firs. Her companions were scattered in different directions in search of food, as was their wont. Some ten or fifteen men had been left with her, and they were dispersed about the mountain collecting firewood, and a supply of heath and moss for the night encampment; within hail, indeed, but scarcely within sight, for the space where the countess sate commanded little more than protruding crags and stunted trees, and mountains lifting their dark, bare brows to the starless sky.
It was not fear which had usurped dominion in the Lady Isabella's heart, it was that heavy, sluggish, indefinable weight which sometimes clogs the spirit we know not wherefore, until some event following quick upon it forces us, even against our will, to believe it the overhanging shadow of the future which had darkened the present. She was sad, very sad, yet she could not, as was ever her custom, bring that sadness to judgment, and impartially examining and determining its cause, remove it if possible, or banish it resolutely from her thoughts.
An impulse indefinable, yet impossible to be resisted, had caused her to intrust her Agnes to the care of Lady Mary and Nigel, and compelled her to follow her son, who had been the[Pg 132] chosen companion of the king. Rigidly, sternly, she had questioned her own heart as to the motives of this decision. It was nothing new her accompanying her son, for she had invariably done so; but it was something unusual her being separated from the queen, and though her heart told her that her motives were so upright, so pure, they could have borne the sternest scrutiny, there was naught which the most rigid mentor could condemn, yet a feeling that evil would come of this was amongst the many others which weighed on her heart. She could not tell wherefore, yet she wished it had been otherwise, wished the honor of being selected as the king's companion had fallen on other than her son, for separate herself from him she could not. One cause of this despondency might have been traced to the natural sinking of the spirit when it finds itself alone, with time for its own fancies, after a long period of exertion, and that mental excitement which, unseen to all outward observers, preys upon itself. Memory had awakened dreams and visions she had long looked upon as dead; it did but picture brightly, beautifully, joyously what might have been, and disturbed the tranquil sadness which was usual to her now; disturb it as with phantasmagoria dancing on the brain, yet it was a struggle hard and fierce to banish them again. As one sweet fancy sunk another rose, even as gleams of moonlight on the waves which rise and fall with every breeze. Fancy and reason strove for dominion, but the latter conquered. What could be now the past, save as a vision of the night; the present, a stern reality with all its duties—duties not alone to others, but to herself. These were the things on which her thoughts must dwell; these must banish all which might have been and they did; and Isabella of Buchan came through that fiery ordeal unscathed, uninjured in her self-esteem, conscious that not in one thought did she wrong her husband, in not one dream did she wrong the gentle heart of the queen which so clung to her; in not the wildest flight of fancy did she look on Robert as aught save as the deliverer of his country, the king of all true Scottish men.
She rose up from that weakness of suffering, strengthened in her resolve to use every energy in the queen's service in supporting, encouraging, endeavoring so to work on her appreciation of her husband's character, as to render her yet more worthy of his love. She had ever sought to remain beside the[Pg 133] queen, ever contrived they should be of the same party; that her mind was ever on the stretch, on the excitement, could not be denied, but she knew not how great its extent till the call for exertion was comparatively over, and she found herself, she scarcely understood how, the only female companion of her sovereign, the situation she had most dreaded, most determined to avoid. While engaged in the performance of her arduous task, the schooling her own heart and devoting herself to Robert's wife, virtue seemed to have had its own reward, for a new spirit had entwined her whole being—excitement, internal as it was, had given a glow to thought and action; but in her present solitude the reaction of spirit fell upon her as a dull, sluggish weight of lead. She had suffered, too, from both privation and fatigue, and she was aware her strength was failing, and this perhaps was another cause of her depression; but be that as it may, darkness closed round her unobserved, and when startled by some sudden sound, she raised her head from her hands, she could scarcely discern one object from another in the density of gloom. "Surely night has come suddenly upon us," she said, half aloud; "it is strange they have not yet returned," and rising, she was about seeking the tent prepared for her, when a rude grasp was laid on her arm, and a harsh, unknown voice uttered, in suppressed accents—
"Not so fast, fair mistress, not so fast! My way does not lie in that direction, and, with your leave, my way is yours."
"How, man! fellow, detain me at your peril!" answered the countess, sternly, permitting no trace of terror to falter in her voice, although a drawn sword gleamed by her side, and a gigantic form fully armed had grasped her arm. "Unhand me, or I will summon those that will force thee. I am not alone, and bethink thee, insult to me will pass not with impunity."
The man laughed scornfully. "Boldly answered, fair one," he said; "of a truth thou art a brave one. I grieve such an office should descend upon me as the detention of so stout a heart; yet even so. In King Edward's name, you are my prisoner."
"Your prisoner, and wherefore?" demanded the countess believing that calmness would be a better protection than any symptoms of fear. "You are mistaken, good friend, I knew not Edward warred with women."[Pg 134]
"Prove my mistake, fair mistress, and I will crave your pardon," replied the man, "We have certain intelligence that a party of Scottish rebels, their quondam king perhaps among them, are hidden in these mountains. Give us trusty news of their movements, show us their track, and Edward will hold you in high favor, and grant liberty and rich presents in excuse of his servant's too great vigilance. Hearest thou, what is the track of these rebels—what their movements?"
"Thou art a sorry fool, Murdock," retorted another voice, ere the countess could reply, and hastily glancing around, she beheld herself surrounded by armed men; "a sorry fool, an thou wastest the precious darkness thus. Is not one rank rebel sufficient, think you, to satisfy our lord? he will get intelligence enough out of her, be sure. Isabella of Buchan is not fool enough to hold parley with such as we, rely on't."
A suppressed exclamation of exultation answered the utterance of that name, and without further parley the arms of the countess were strongly pinioned, and with the quickness of thought the man who had first spoken raised her in his arms, and bore her through the thickest brushwood and wildest crags in quite the contrary direction to the encampment; their movements accelerated by the fact that, ere her arms were confined, the countess, with admirable presence of mind, had raised to her lips a silver whistle attached to her girdle, and blown a shrill, distinct blast. A moment sufficed to rudely tear it from her hand, and hurry her off as we have said; and when that call was answered, which it was as soon as the men scattered on the mountain sufficiently recognized the sound, they flung down their tools and sprung to the side whence it came, but there was no sign, no trace of her they sought; they scoured with lighted torches every mossy path or craggy slope, but in vain; places of concealment were too numerous, the darkness too intense, save just the space illumined by the torch, to permit success. The trampling of horses announced the return of the king and his companions, ere their search was concluded; his bugle summoned the stragglers, and speedily the loss of the countess was ascertained, their fruitless search narrated, and anxiety and alarm spread over the minds of all. The agony of the youthful Alan surpassed description, even the efforts of his sovereign failed to calm him. Nor was the Bruce himself much less agitated.[Pg 135]
"She did wrong, she did wrong," he said, "to leave herself so long unguarded; yet who was there to commit this outrage? There is some treachery here, which we must sift; we must not leave our noble countrywoman in the hands of these marauders. Trust me, Alan, we shall recover her yet."
But the night promised ill for the fulfilment of this trust. Many hours passed in an utterly fruitless search, and about one hour before midnight a thick fog increased the dense gloom, and even prevented all assistance from the torches, for not ten yards before them was distinguishable. Dispirited and disappointed, the king and his companions threw themselves around the watchfires, in gloomy meditation, starting at the smallest sound, and determined to renew their search with the first gleam of dawn; the hurried pace of Alan, as he strode up and down, for he could not rest, alone disturbing the stillness all around.