It was already two hours after midnight when a hurried tread, distinct from Alan's restless pacing, disturbed the watchers, and occasioned many to raise themselves on their elbows and listen.
It came nearer and nearer, and very soon a young lad, recognized as Sir Alan's page, was discerned, springing from crag to crag in breathless haste, and finally threw himself at his sovereign's feet.
"It is not too late—up, up, and save her!" were the
nly words he had power to gasp, panting painfully for the breath of which speed had deprived him. His hair and dress were heavy with the damp occasioned by the fog, and his whole appearance denoting no common agitation.
"Where?" "How?" "What knowest thou?" "Speak out." "What ailest thee, boy?" were the eager words uttered at once by all, and the king and others sprung to their feet, while Alan laid a heavy hand on the boy's shoulder, and glared on him in silence; the lad's glance fell beneath his, and he sobbed forth—
"Mercy, mercy! my thoughtlessness has done this, yet I[Pg 136] guessed not, dreamed not this ill would follow. But oh, do not wait for my tale now; up, up, and save her ere it be too late!"
"And how may we trust thee now, an this is the effect of former treachery?" demanded Robert, with a sternness that seemed to awe the terrified boy into composure.
"I am not treacherous, sire. No, no! I would have exposed my throat to your grace's sword rather than do a traitor's deed: trust me, oh, trust me, and follow without delay!"
"Speak first, and clearly," answered Alan, fiercely; "even for my mother's sake the sacred person of the King of Scotland shall not be risked by a craven's word. Speak, an thou wouldst bid me trust thee—speak, I charge thee."
"He is right—he is right; let him explain this mystery ere we follow," echoed round; and thus urged, the boy's tale was hurriedly told.
It was simply this. Some days previous, when wandering alone about the rocks, he had met a woodman, whom he recognized as one of the retainers of Buchan, and, as such, believed him as loyal and faithful to King Robert's interest as himself and others in the countess's train. The man had artfully evaded all young Malcolm's expression of astonishment and inquiries as to why Donald MacAlpine, whom he well knew to be one of the stoutest and most sturdy men-at-arms which the clan possessed, should have taken to so peaceful an employment as cutting wood, and skilfully drew from the boy much information concerning the movements of the party to whom he belonged. Malcolm freely spoke of Sir Alan and the Countess of Buchan, dilating with no little pleasure on his young master having received knighthood at the hand of his king, and all the honors and delights which accompanied it. Aware, however, of the dangers which environed the Bruce, he spoke of him more cautiously, and the more Donald sought to discover if the king were near at hand, the more carefully did Malcolm conceal that he was, telling the woodman if he wished to know all particulars, he had better turn his sickle into a spear, his cap into a helmet, and strike a good blow for Scotland and King Robert. This the man refused to do, alleging he loved his own sturdy person and independent freedom too well to run his neck into such a noose; that King Robert might do very well for a while, but eventually he must fall into King Edward's hands.[Pg 137] Malcolm angrily denied this, and they parted, not the best friends imaginable. On reviewing all that had passed, the boy reproached himself incessantly for having said too much, and was continually tormented by an indefinable fear that some evil would follow. This fear kept him by the side of the countess, instead of, as was his wont, following Sir Alan to the chase. The increasing darkness had concealed her from him, but he was the first to distinguish her whistle. He had reached the spot time enough to recognize the supposed woodman in the second speaker, and to feel with painful acuteness his boyish thoughtlessness had brought this evil on a mistress, to serve whom he would willingly have laid down his life. Resistance he knew, on his part, was utterly useless, and therefore he determined to follow their track, and thus bring accurate intelligence to the king. The minds of the men preoccupied by the thought of their distinguished prisoner, and the thickening gloom, aided his resolution. Happening to have a quantity of thick flax in his pocket, the boy, with admirable foresight, fastened it to different shrubs and stones as he passed, and thus secured his safe return; a precaution very necessary, as from the windings and declivities, and in parts well-nigh impregnable hollows, into which he followed the men, his return in time would have been utterly frustrated.
The gathering mist had occasioned a halt, and a consultation as to whether they could reach the encampment to which they belonged, or whether it would not be better to halt till dawn. They had decided in favor of the latter, fearing, did they continue marching, they might lose their track, and perhaps fall in with the foe. He had waited, he said, till he saw them making such evident preparations for a halt of some hours, that he felt certain they would not remove till daylight. It was a difficult and precarious path, he said, yet he was quite sure he could lead fifteen or twenty men easily to the spot, and, taken by surprise, nothing would prevent the recovery of the countess: less than two hours would take them there.
This tale was told in less time than we have taken to transcribe it, and not twenty minutes after Malcolm's first appearance, the king and Sir Alan, with fifteen tried followers, departed on their expedition. There had been some attempt to dissuade the king from venturing his own person where further treachery might yet lurk, but the attempt was vain.[Pg 138]
"She has perilled her life for me," was his sole answer, "and were there any real peril, mine would be hazarded for her; but there is none—'tis but a child's work we are about to do, not even glory enough to call for envy."
The fog had sufficiently cleared to permit of their distinguishing the route marked out by Malcolm, but not enough to betray their advance, even had there been scouts set to watch the pass. Not a word passed between them. Rapidly, stealthily they advanced, and about three in the morning stood within sight of their foes, though still unseen themselves. There was little appearance of caution: two large fires had been kindled, round one of which ten or twelve men were stretched their full length, still armed indeed, and their hands clasping their unsheathed swords, but their senses fast locked in slumber. Near the other, her arms and feet pinioned, Alan, with a heart beating almost audibly with indignation, recognized his mother. Two men, armed with clubs, walked up and down beside her, and seven others were grouped in various attitudes at her feet, most of them fast asleep. It was evident that they had no idea of surprise, and that their only fear was associated with the escape of their prisoner.
"They are little more than man to man," said the Bruce; "therefore is there no need for further surprise than will attend the blast of your bugle, Sir Alan. Sound the reveillé, and on to the rescue."
He was obeyed, and the slumberers, with suppressed oaths, started to their feet, glancing around them a brief minute in inquiring astonishment as to whence the sound came. It was speedily explained: man after man sprang through the thicket, and rushed upon the foes, several of whom, gathering themselves around their prisoner, seemed determined that her liberty should not be attained with her life, more than once causing the swords of the Bruce's followers to turn aside in their rapid descent, less they should injure her they sought to save. Like a young lion Alan fought, ably seconded by the king, whose gigantic efforts clearing his path, at length enabled himself and Alan to stand uninjured beside the countess, and thus obtain possession of her person, and guard her from the injury to which her captors voluntarily exposed her. There was at first no attempt at flight, although the Bruce's men carried all before them; the men fell where they stood, till only five re[Pg 139]mained, and these, after a moment's hesitation, turned and fled. A shrill cry from Malcolm had turned the king's and Alan's attention in another direction, and it was well they did so. Determined on foiling the efforts of his foes, Donald MacAlpine, who was supposed to be among the fallen, had stealthily approached the spot where the countess, overcome with excessive faintness, still reclined, then noiselessly rising, his sword was descending on her unguarded head, when Alan, aroused by Malcolm's voice, turned upon him and dashed his weapon from his grasp, at the same minute that the Bruce's sword pierced the traitor's heart: he sprung in the air with a loud yell of agony, and fell, nearly crushing the countess with his weight.
It was the voice of Alan which aroused that fainting heart. It was in the bosom of her son those tearful eyes were hid, after one startled and bewildered gaze on the countenance of her sovereign, who had been leaning over her in unfeigned anxiety. A thicket of thorn, mingled with crags, divided her from the unseemly signs of the late affray; but though there was naught to renew alarm, it was with a cold shudder she had clung to her son, as if even her firm, bold spirit had given way. Gently, cheeringly the king addressed her, and she evidently struggled to regain composure; but her powers of body were evidently so prostrated, that her friends felt rest of some kind she must have, ere she could regain sufficient strength to accompany them on their wanderings. She had received three or four wounds in the mêlée, which though slight, the loss of blood that had followed materially increased her weakness, and the king anxiously summoned his friends around him to deliberate on the best measures to pursue.
Amongst them were two of Sir Alan's retainers, old and faithful Scottish men, coeval with his grandfather, the late Earl of Buchan. Devoted alike to the countess, the king, and their country, they eagerly listened to all that was passing, declaring that rather than leave the Lady Isabella in a situation of such danger as the present, they would take it by turns to carry her in their arms to the encampment. The king listened with a benevolent smile.
"Is there no hut or house, or hunting-lodge to which we could convey your lady," he asked, "where she might find quieter shelter and greater rest than hitherto? An ye knew of such, it would be the wiser plan to seek it at break of day."[Pg 140]
A hunting-lodge, belonging to the Earls of Buchan, there was, or ought to be, the old men said, near the head of the Tay, just at the entrance of Athol Forest. It had not been used since their old master's days; he had been very partial to it when a boy, and was continually there; it had most likely fallen into decay from disuse, as they believed the present earl did not even know of its existence, but that was all the better, as it would be a still more safe and secure retreat for the countess, and they were sure, when once out of the hollows and intricacies of their present halting-place, they could easily discover the path to it.
And how long did they think it would be, the king inquired, before their lady could be taken to it? the sooner, they must perceive as well as himself, the better for her comfort. He was relieved when they declared that two days, or at the very utmost three, would bring them there, if, as the old men earnestly entreated he would, they retraced their steps to the encampment as soon as daylight was sufficiently strong for them clearly to distinguish their path. This was unanimously resolved on, and the few intervening hours were spent by the countess in calm repose.
Conscious that filial affection watched over her, the sleep of the countess tranquillized her sufficiently to commence the return to the encampment with less painful evidences of exhaustion. A rude litter waited for her, in which she could recline when the pass allowed its safe passage, and which could be easily borne by the bearers when the intricacies of the path prevented all egress save by pedestrianism. It had been hurriedly made by her devoted adherents, and soothed and gratified, her usual energy seemed for the moment to return. By nine o'clock forenoon all traces of the Bruce and his party had departed from the glen, the last gleam of their armor was lost in the winding path, and then it was that a man, who had lain concealed in a thicket from the moment of the affray, hearing all that had passed, unseen himself, now slowly, cautiously raised himself on his knees, gazed carefully round him, then with a quicker but as silent motion sprung to his feet, and raised his hands in an action of triumph.
"He is amongst them, then," he muttered, "the traitor Bruce himself. This is well. The countess, her son, find the would-be king—ha! ha! My fortune's made!" and he[Pg 141] bounded away in quite a contrary direction to that taken by the Bruce.
The old retainers of Buchan were correct in their surmises. The evening of the second day succeeding the event we have narrated brought them to the hunting-lodge. It was indeed very old, and parts had fallen almost to ruins, but there were still three or four rooms remaining, whose compact walls and well-closed roofs rendered them a warm and welcome refuge for the Countess of Buchan, whose strenuous exertions the two preceding days had ended, as was expected, by exhaustion more painful and overpowering than before.
The exertions of her friends—for the Bruce and his followers with one consent had permitted their wanderings to be guided by the old men—speedily rendered the apartments habitable. Large fires were soon blazing on the spacious hearths, and ere night fell, all appearance of damp and discomfort had vanished. The frugal supper was that night a jovial meal; the very look of a cheerful blaze beneath a walled roof was reviving to the wanderers; the jest passed round, the wine-cup sparkled to the health of the countess, and many a fervent aspiration echoed round for the speedy restoration of her strength; for truly she was the beloved, the venerated of all, alike from her sovereign to his lowest follower.
"Trust my experience, my young knight," had been the Bruce's address to Alan ere they parted for the night. "A few days' complete repose will quite restore your valued parent and my most honored friend. This hunting-lodge shall be our place of rendezvous for a time, till she is sufficiently restored to accompany us southward. You are satisfied, are you not, with the diligence of our scouts?"
"Perfectly, your highness," was Alan's reply; for well-tried and intelligent men had been sent in every direction to discover, if possible, to what party of the enemy the captors of the Lady Isabella belonged, and to note well the movements and appearance, not only of any martial force, but of the country people themselves. They had executed their mission as well as the intricate passes and concealed hollows of the mountains permitted, and brought back the welcome intelligence, that for miles round the country was perfectly clear, and to all appearance peaceful. The hunting-lodge, too, was so completely hidden by dark woods of pine and overhanging crags, that[Pg 142] even had there been foes prowling about the mountains, they might pass within twenty yards of its vicinity and yet fail to discover it. The very path leading to the bottom of the hollow in which it stood was concealed at the entrance by thick shrubs and an arch of rock, which had either fallen naturally into that shape, or been formed by the architects of the lodge. It seemed barely possible that the retreat could be discovered, except by the basest treachery, and therefore the king and Sir Alan felt perfectly at rest regarding the safety of the countess, even though they could only leave with her a guard of some twenty or thirty men.
So much was she refreshed the following morning, that the hopes of her son brightened, and with that filial devotion so peculiarly his characteristic, he easily obtained leave of absence from his sovereign, to remain by the couch of his mother for at least that day, instead of accompanying him, as was his wont, in the expeditions of the day. The countess combated this decision, but in vain. Alan was resolved. He was convinced, he said, her former capture, and all its ill consequences, would not have taken place had he been by her side; and even were she not now exposed to such indignity, she would be lonely and sad without him, and stay, in consequence, he would. The king and his officers approved of the youth's resolution, and reluctantly Isabella yielded.
About two hours before noon the Bruce and his companions departed, desiring Sir Alan not to expect their return till near midnight, as they intended penetrating a part of the country which had not yet been explored; they might be a few hours sooner, but they scarcely expected it. It was afterwards remembered that a peculiar expression of sadness overclouded the countenance of the countess, as for a moment she fixed her speaking eyes on the king's face when he cheerfully bade her farewell, and said, in a low emphatic voice—
"Farewell, sire! It may be the hour of meeting is longer deferred than we either of us now believe. Fain would I beseech your grace to grant me one boon, make me but one promise ere you depart."
"Any boon, any promise that our faithful friend and subject can demand, is granted ere 'tis asked," answered the king, without a moment's pause, though startled alike at the expression of her features and the sadness of her voice. "Gladly[Pg 143] would we give any pledge that could in any way bespeak our warm sense of thy true merit, lady, therefore speak, and fear not."
"'Tis simply this, sire," she said, and her voice was still mournful, despite her every effort to prevent its being so. "Should unforeseen evil befall me, captivity, danger of death, or aught undreamed of now, give me your royal word as a knight and king, that you will not peril your sacred person, and with it the weal and liberty of our unhappy country, for my sake, but leave me to my fate; 'tis a strange and fanciful boon, yet, gracious sovereign, refuse it not. I mean not treachery such as we have encountered, where your grace's noble gallantry rescued me with little peril to yourself. No; I mean other and greater danger; where I well know that rather than leave me exposed to the wrath of my husband and Edward of England, you would risk your own precious life, and with it the liberty of Scotland. Grant me this boon, my liege, and perchance this heavy weight upon my spirit will pass and leave me free."
"Nay, 'tis such a strange and unknightly promise, lady, how may I pledge my word to its fulfilment?" answered Robert, gravely and sadly. "You bid me pledge mine honor to a deed that will stain my name with an everlasting infamy, that even the liberty of Scotland will not wash away. How may I do this thing? You press me sorely, lady. Even for thee, good and faithful as thou art, how may I hurt my knightly fame?"
"Sire, thou wilt not," she returned, still more entreatingly; "thy brilliant fame, thy noble name, will never—can never, receive a stain. I do but ask a promise whose fulfilment may never be demanded. I do but bid thee remember thou art not only a knight, a noble, a king, but one by whom the preservation, the independence of our country can alone be achieved—one on whose safety and freedom depends the welfare of a nation, the unchained glory of her sons. Were death thy portion, Scotland lies a slave forever at the feet of England, and therefore is it I do beseech thee, King of Scotland, make me this pledge. I know thy noble spirit well, and I know thy too chivalric honor would blind thee to a sense of danger, to a sense of country, duty, glory, of all save the rescue of one who, though she be faithful to thee and to her country, is but as a[Pg 144] drop of water in the ocean, compared to other claims. My liege, thy word is already in part pledged," she continued, more proudly. "Any pledge or promise I might demand is granted ere it is asked, your highness deigned to say; thou canst not retract it now."
"And wherefore shouldst thou, royal brother?" cheeringly interrupted Alexander Bruce. "The Lady Isahella asks not unreasonably; she does but suggest what may be, although that may be is, as we all know, next to impossible, particularly now when nature has fortified this pleasant lodge even as would a garrison of some hundred men. Come, be not so churlish in thy favors, good my liege; give her the pledge she demands, and be sure its fulfilment will never be required."
"Could I but think so," he replied, still gravely. "Lady, I do entreat thee, tell me wherefore thou demandest this strange boon; fearest thou evil—dreamest thou aught of danger hovering near? If so, as there is a God in heaven, I will not go forth to-day!"
"Pardon me, gracious sovereign," answered Isabella, evasively; "I ask it, because since the late adventure there has been a weight upon my spirit as if I, impotent, of little consequence as I am, yet even I might be the means of hurling down evil on thy head, and through thee on Scotland; and, therefore, until thy promise to the effect I have specified is given, I cannot, I will not rest—even though, as Lord Alexander justly believes, its fulfilment will never be required. Evil here, my liege, trust me, cannot be; therefore go forth in confidence. I fear not to await your return, e'en should I linger here alone. Grant but my boon."
"Nay, an it must be, lady, I promise all thou demandest," answered Bruce, more cheerfully, for her words reassured him; "but, by mine honor, thou hast asked neither well nor kindly. Remember, my pledge is passed but for real danger, and that only for Scotland's sake, not for mine own; and now farewell, lady. I trust, ere we meet again, these depressing fancies will have left thee."
"They have well-nigh departed now, my liege; 'twas simply for thee and Scotland these heavy bodings oppressed me. My son," she added, after a brief pause, "I would your highness could prevail on him to accompany you to-day. Wherefore should he stay with me?"[Pg 145]
"Wherefore not rather, lady?" replied the king, smiling. "I may not leave thee to thine own thoughts to weave fresh boons like to the last. No, no! our young knight must guard thee till we meet again," and with these words he departed. They did not, however, deter the countess from resuming her persuasions to Alan to accompany his sovereign, but without success. Isabella of Buchan had, however, in this instance departed from her usual strict adherence to the truth, she did not feel so secure that no evil would befall her in the absence of the Bruce, as she had endeavored to make him believe.
Some words she had caught during her brief captivity caused her, she scarcely knew why, to believe that the Earl of Buchan himself was in the neighborhood; nay, that the very party which had captured her were members of the army under his command. She had gathered, too, that it was a very much larger force than the king's, and therefore it was that she had made no objection to Robert's wish that she should rest some few days in the hunting-lodge. She knew that, however her failing strength might detain and harass their movements, Bruce and his followers would never consent to leave her, unless, as in the present case, under a comparatively comfortable roof and well-concealed shelter; and she knew, too, that however she might struggle to accompany them in their wanderings, the struggle in her present exhausted state would be utterly in vain, and lingering for her might expose her sovereign to a renewal of the ills with which he had already striven so nobly, and perchance to yet more irreparable misfortune. The information of the scouts had partially reassured her, at least to the fact that no immediate danger was to be apprehended, and for a while she indulged the hope that safety might be found in this hidden spot until the peril passed. She had full confidence in the fidelity of the old retainers who had guided them to the spot, and sought to feel satisfied that its vicinity was unknown to the earl, her husband; but, whether from the restlessness of a slight degree of fever, or from that nervous state of mind attendant on worn-out strength, ere the Bruce departed the same foreboding came on her again, and all her desire was the absence of her sovereign and his followers, to have some hold upon his almost too exalted sense of chivalry, which would prevent any rash act of daring on his part; and this, as we have seen, she obtained.[Pg 146]
Could she but have prevailed on her son to accompany them, she would calmly and resignedly have awaited her fate, whatever it might be; but the horror of beholding him a prisoner in the hands of his father—that father perhaps so enraged at the boy's daring opposition to his will and political opinions, that he would give him up at once to the wrath of Edward—was a picture of anguish from which her mind revolted in such intense suffering, she could not rest. She strove with the fancy; she sought to rouse every energy, to feel secure in her present resting-place. But who can resist the influence of feelings such as these? What mother's heart cannot enter into the emotions of Isabella of Buchan, as she gazed on her noble boy, improved as he was in manliness and beauty, and with the dread anticipation of evil, believing only absence could protect him; that perchance the very love which kept him by her side would expose him to danger, imprisonment, and death? She did not speak her fears, but Alan vainly sought to soothe that unwonted restlessness. She had endeavored to secure the Bruce's safety by the aid of Malcolm, the young page, by whose instrumentality she had been both captured and released. Taking advantage of Sir Alan's absence, she had called the boy to her side, and made him promise that, at the first manifest sign of danger, he would make his escape, which, by his extreme agility and address, would easily be achieved, seek the king, and give him exact information of the numbers, strength, and situation of the foes, reminding him, at the same time, of his solemn pledge. She made him promise the profoundest secrecy, and adjured him at all hazards to save the king.
The boy, affected by the solemnity of her manner, promised faithfully to observe her minutest sign, and on the re-entrance of Sir Alan departed, to marvel wherefore his lady should so have spoken, and examine the localities around, as to the best means of concealment and escape.
The hours waned, and night fell, as is usual in October, some five hours after noon, the gloom perhaps greatly increased by the deep shades in which their place of concealment lay. Sir Alan roused the fire to a cheerful blaze, and lighting a torch of pine-wood, placed it in an iron bracket projecting from the wall, and amused himself by polishing his arms, and talking in that joyous tone his mother so loved, on every subject that his[Pg 147] affection fancied might interest and amuse her. He was wholly unarmed, except his sword, which, secured to his waist by a crimson sash, he never laid aside; and fair and graceful to his mother's eye did he look in his simple doublet of Lincoln-green, cut and slashed with ruby velvet, his dark curls clustering round his bare throat, and his bright face beaming in all the animation of youth and health, spiritualized by the deeper feelings of his soul; and she, too, was still beautiful, though her frame was slighter, her features more attenuated than when we first beheld her. He had insisted on her reclining on the couch, and drawn from her otherwise painful thoughts by his animated sallies, smiles circled her pale lip, and her sorrows were a while forgotten.
An hour, perhaps rather more, elapsed, and found the mother and son still as we have described, There had been no sound without, but about that period many heavy footsteps might have been distinguished, cautiously, it seemed, advancing. Alan started up and listened; the impatient neigh of a charger was heard, and then voices suppressed, yet, as he fancied, familiar.
"King Robert returned already!" he exclaimed; "they must have had an unusually successful chase. I must e'en seek them and inquire."
"Alan! my child!" He started at the voice, it was so unlike his mother's. She had risen and flung her arm around him with a pressure so convulsive, he looked at her with terror. There was no time to answer; a sudden noise usurped the place of the previous stillness—a struggle—a heavy fall; the door was flung rudely open, and an armed man stood upon the threshold, his vizor up, but even had it not been, the heart of the countess too truly told her she gazed upon her husband!