A brief pause followed the entrance of this unexpected visitor. Standing upon the threshold, his dark brow knit, his eyes fixed on his prisoners, the Earl of Buchan stood a few minutes immovable. Alan saw but a mail-clad warrior, more[Pg 148] fierce and brutal in appearance than the generality of their foes, and felt, with all that heart-sinking despondency natural to youth, that they were betrayed, that resistance was in vain, for heavier and louder grew the tramp of horse and man, and the narr
w passage, discernible through the open door, was filled with steel-clad forms, their drawn swords glancing in the torchlight, their dark brows gleaming in ill-concealed triumph. Alan was still a boy in years, despite his experience as a warrior, and in the first agony of this discovery, the first dream of chains and captivity, when his young spirit revelled in the thought of freedom, and joyed as a bird in the fresh air of mount and stream, weaving bright hopes, not exile or wandering could remove, his impulse had been to dash his useless sword in anguish to the earth, and weep; but the sight of his mother checked that internal weakness. He felt her convulsive clasp; he beheld the expression on her features,—how unlike their wont—terror, suffering, whose entire cause he vainly endeavored to define, and he roused himself for her. And she, did she see more than her son? She knew that face, and as she gazed, she felt hope had departed; she beheld naught but a long, endless vista of anguish; yet she felt not for herself, she thought but of her child. And the earl, can we define his exulting mood?—it was the malice, the triumph of a fiend.
"Who and what art thou?" demanded Alan, fiercely, laying his right hand on his sword, and with the left firmly clasping his mother's waist. "What bold knight and honorable chevalier art thou, thus seeking by stealth the retreat of a wanderer, and overpowering by numbers and treachery men, who on the field thou and such as thou had never dared to meet?"
The earl laughed; that bitter, biting laugh of contempt and triumph so difficult to bear.
"Thou hast a worthy tongue, my pretty springald," said he; "canst thou use thy sword as bravely? Who and what am I? ask of the lady thou hast so caressingly encircled with thine arm, perchance she can give thee information."
Alan started, a cold thrill passed through his frame, as the real cause of his mother's terror flashed on his mind; her lips, parched and quivering, parted as to speak, but there was no sound.
"Mother," he said, "mother, speak to thy son. Why, why[Pg 149] art thou thus? it is not the dread of imprisonment, of death. No, no; they have no terrors for such as thee. Who is this man?"
Engrossed in his own agitation, Alan had not heard the muttered exclamation which burst from Buchan's lips with his first words, for great was the earl's surprise as he looked on his son; the impression he was still a child had remained on his mind despite all reports to the contrary, but no softer feeling obtained dominion.
"Who and what am I?" he continued, after a brief pause. "Wouldst thou know, Alan of Buchan? Even a faithful knight, soldier, and subject of his Royal Highness Edward, king of England and Scotland, and consequently thy foe; the insulted and dishonored husband of the woman thou callest mother, and consequently thy father, young man. Ha! have I spoken home? Thy sword, thy sword; acknowledge thy disloyalty to thy father and king, and for thee all may yet be well."
"Never!" answered Alan, proudly, the earl's concluding words rousing the spirit which the knowledge of beholding his father and the emotion of his mother seemed to have crushed. "Never, Lord of Buchan! for father I cannot call thee. Thou mayest force me to resign my sword, thou mayest bring me to the block, but acknowledge allegiance to a foreign tyrant, who hath no claims on Scotland or her sons, save those of hate and detestation, that thou canst never do, even if thy sword be pointed at my heart."
"Boy!" burst from the earl's lips, in accents of irrepressible rage, but he checked himself; "thou hast learned a goodly lesson of disobedience and daring, of a truth, and I should tender grateful thanks to thy most worthy, most efficient and virtuous teacher," he added, in his own bitterly sarcastic tone. "The Lady Isabella deems, perchance, she has done her duty to her husband in placing a crown on the head of his hereditary and hated foe, and leading his son in the same path of rebellion and disloyalty, and giving his service to the murderer of his kinsman."
"Earl of Buchan, I have done my duty alike to my country and my son," replied the countess, her high spirit roused by the taunts of her husband. "According to the dictates of my conscience, mine honor as a Scottish woman, the mother of a Scottish warrior, I have done my duty, and neither imprison[Pg 150]ment, nor torture, nor death will bid me retract those principles, or waver in my acknowledgment of Scotland and her king. Pardon me, my lord; but there is no rebellion in resisting the infringement of a tyrant, no disloyalty in raising the standard against Edward, for there is no treason when there is no lawful authority; and by what right is Edward of England king of Scotland? Lord of Buchan, I have done my duty. As my father taught me I have taught my child!"
"Regarding, of course, madam, all which that child's father would have taught him, particularly that most Christian virtue returning good for evil, as in the fact of revenging the death of a kinsman with the gift of a crown. Oh! thou hast done well, most intrinsically well."
"I own no relationship with a traitor," burst impetuously from Alan. "Sir John Comyn was honored in his death, for the sword of the Bruce was too worthy a weapon for the black heart of a traitor. Lord of Buchan, we are in thy power, it is enough. Hadst thou wished thy son to imbibe thy peculiar principles, to forget his country and her lights, it had been better perchance hadst thou remembered thou hadst a child—a son. Had the duty of a father been performed, perchance I had not now forgotten mine as a son! As it is, we stand as strangers and as foes. Against thee in truth I will not raise my sword; but further, we are severed and forever!" He crossed his arms proudly on his bosom, and returned the dark, scowling glance of his father with a flashing eye, and a mien as firm and nobler than his own.
"It is well, young man; I thank you for my freedom," returned the earl, between his teeth. "As my son, I might stand between thee and Edward's wrath; as a stranger and my foe, why, whatever his sentence be—the axe and block without doubt—let it work, it will move me little."
"Heed not his rash words, in mercy, heed them not!" exclaimed the countess, her voice of agony contrasting strangely with its former proud reserve. "Neglected, forgotten him as thou hast, yet, Lord of Buchan, he is still thy son. Oh, in mercy, expose him not to the deadly wrath of Edward! thou canst save him, thou canst give him freedom. It is I—I who am the attainted traitor, not my child. Give me up to Edward, and he will heed not, ask not for thy son. It is I who have offended him and thee, not my child. Art thou not a Scottish[Pg 151] noble, descendant of a house as purely loyal and devoted to their country as mine own—art thou not indeed this man, and yet hath Edward, the deadly foe of thy race, thy land, thy countrymen, more exalted claims than thine own blood? No, no, it cannot be! thou wilt relent, thou wilt have mercy; let him be but free, and do with me even what thou wilt!"
"Free! go free!" repeated the earl, with a hoarse laugh, ere Alan could interfere. "Let him go free, forsooth, when he tells me he is my foe, and will go hence and join my bitterest enemies the moment he is free. Go free! and who art thou who askest this boon? Hast thou such claims upon me, that for thy pleasure I should give freedom to thy son?"
"My lord, my lord, 'tis for thine own sake, for his, thy child as well as mine, I do beseech, implore thy mercy? draw not the curse of heaven on thy heart by exposing him to death. Thou wilt know and feel him as indeed thy child when he lies bleeding before thee, when thine own hand hath forged the death-bolt, and then, then it will be too late; thou wilt yearn for his voice in vain. Oh! is it not sufficient triumph to have in thy power the wife who hath dared thy authority, who hath joined the patriot band, and so drawn down on her the vengeance of Edward? The price of a traitor is set upon her head. My lord, my lord, is not one victim enough—will not my capture insure thee reward and honor in the court of Edward? Then do with me what thou wilt—chains, torture, death; but my child, my brave boy—oh, if thou hast one spark of mercy in thy heart, let him go!"
"Mother," hoarsely murmured Alan, as he strove to raise her from her suppliant posture, "mother, this shall not be! look upon that face and know thou pleadest in vain. I will not accept my freedom at such a price; thy knee, thy supplications unto a heart of stone, for me! No, no; mother, dear mother, we will die together!"
"Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, my beloved, my beautiful! thy death will be on my head, though it come from a father's hand. I will plead, I will be heard! My lord, my lord," she continued, wrought to a pitch of agonized feeling, no heart save that to which she pleaded could have heard unmoved, "I ask but his freedom, the freedom of a boy, a child—and of whom do I ask it?—of his father, his own father! Speak to me, answer me; thou canst not be so lost to the voice, the feelings[Pg 152] of nature. For the sake of the mother who loved, the father who blessed thee, whose blessing hallowed our union and smiled on our infant boy, have mercy on me, on thyself—let him, oh, let him be free!"
"Mercy on thee, thou false and perjured woman!" the earl burst forth, the cold sarcastic expression with which he had at first listened to her impassioned entreaties giving way to the fearful index of ungoverned rage; "on thee, thou false traitress, not alone to thy husband's principles but to his honor! Do I not know thee, minion—do I not know the motives of thy conduct in leaving thy husband's castle for the court of Bruce? Patriotism, forsooth—patriotism, ha! the patriotism that had vent in giving and receiving love from him; it was so easy to do homage to him in public as thy king. Oh, most rare and immaculate specimen of female loyalty and virtue, I know thee well!"
"Man!" answered the countess, springing from her knee, and standing before him with a mien and countenance of such majestic dignity, that for a brief moment it awed even him, and her bewildered son gazed at her with emotions of awe, struggling with surprise.
"Ha! faithless minion, thou bravest it well," continued Buchan, determined on evincing no faltering in his purpose, "but thou bravest it in vain; dishonored thou art, and hast been, aye, from the time thy minion Robert visited thee in Buchan Tower, and lingered with thee the months he had disappeared from Edward's court. Would Isabella of Buchan have rendered homage to any other bold usurper, save her minion Robert? Would the murder of a Comyn have passed unavenged by her had the murderer been other than her gallant Bruce? Would Isabella of Buchan be here, the only female in the Bruce's train—for I know that he is with thee—were loyalty and patriotism her only motive? Woman, I know thee! I know that thou didst love him, ere that false hand and falser heart were given to me; thy lips spoke perfidy when they vowed allegiance at the altar; and shall I have mercy on thy son, for such as thee? Mercy! ha, have I silenced thy eloquence now?"
"Silenced, false, blasphemous villain!" vociferated Alan, every other feeling lost in the whirlwind of passion, and springing on the earl, with his drawn sword. "'Tis thou who art[Pg 153] the false and faithless—thou who art lost to every feeling of honor and of truth. Thy words are false as hell, from whence they spring!"
"Alan, by the love thou bearest me, I charge thee put up thy sword—it is thy father!" exclaimed, the countess, commandingly, and speaking the last word in a tone that thrilled to the boy's heart. He checked himself in his full career; he snapped his drawn sword in twain, he cast it passionately from him, and uttering, convulsively, "Oh God, oh God, my father!" flung himself in agony on the ground. With arms folded and the smile of a demon on his lip the earl had awaited his attack, but there was disappointment within, for his foul charge had failed in its intended effect. Prouder, colder, more commandingly erect had become the mein of the countess as he spoke, till she even appeared to increase in stature; her flashing eyes had never moved from his face, till his fell beneath them; her lip had curled, his cheek had flushed: powerful indeed became the contrast between the accused and the accuser.
"Arise, my son," she said, "arise and look upon thy mother; her brow even as her heart is unstained with shame; she fears not to meet the glance of her child. Look up, my boy; I speak these words to thee, not to that bold, bad man, who hath dared unite the name of a daughter of Fife with shame. He hath no word either of exculpation, denial, or assent from me. But to thee, my child, my young, my innocent child, thee, whose ear, when removed from me, they may strive to poison with false tales, woven with such skill that hadst thou not thy mother's word, should win thee to belief—to thee I say, look on me, Alan—is this a brow of guilt?"
"No, no, no, I will not look on thee, my mother! I need not to gaze on thee to know the horrid falsity of the charge," answered Alan, flinging his arms passionately around his mother. "Did I never see thee more, never list that voice again, and did all the fiends of hell come around me with their lies, I would not hear, much less believe such charge. No, no! oh God, 'tis my father, speaks it! Father—and my hand is powerless to avenge."
"I need not vengeance, my beloved; grieve not, weep not that thy hand is chained, and may not defend thy mother's stainless name; I need it not. My heart is known unto my God, my innocence to thee; his blessing rest with thee, my[Pg 154] beautiful, and give thee strength for all thou mayest endure."
She bent down to kiss his brow, which was damp with the dew of intense anguish. He started up, he gave one long look on her calm and noble face, and then he flung himself in her arms, and sobbed like a child on her bosom. It was a fearful moment for that woman heart; had she been alone with her child, both nerve and spirit must have given way, but fortunately, perhaps, for the preservation of her fortitude, the Earl of Buchan was still the witness of that scene, triumphing in the sufferings he had caused. The countess did indeed fold her boy convulsively to her breast, but she did not bend her head on his, as Nature prompted; it was still erect; her mien majestic still, and but a slight quivering in her beautiful lip betrayed emotion.
"Be firm; be thy noble self," she said. "Forget not thou art a knight and soldier amid the patriots of Scotland. And now a while, farewell."
She extricated herself with some difficulty from his embrace; she paused not to gaze again upon the posture of overwhelming despondency in which he had sunk, but with a step quick and firm advanced to the door.
"Whither goest thou, madam?" demanded the earl fiercely. "Bold as thou art, it is well to know thou art a prisoner, accused of high treason against King Edward."
"I need not your lordship's voice to give me such information," she answered, proudly. "Methinks these armed followers are all-sufficient evidence. Guard me, aye, confine me with fetters an thou wilt, but in thy presence thou canst not force me to abide."
"Bid a last farewell to thy son, then, proud minion," he replied, with fiendish malignity; "for an ye part now, it is forever. Ye see him not again."
"Then be it so," she rejoined; "we shall meet where falsehood and malignant hate can never harm us more," and with a gesture of dignity, more irritating to the earl than the fiercest demonstration of passion, she passed the threshold. A sign from Buchan surrounded her with guards, and by them she was conducted to a smaller apartment, which was first carefully examined as to any concealed means of escape, and then she was left alone, a strong guard stationed at the door.[Pg 155]
The first few minutes after the disappearance of the countess were passed by her husband in rapidly striding up and down the room, by her son, in the same posture of mute and motionless anguish in which she had left him. There is no need to define that suffering, his peculiar situation is all-sufficient to explain it. Hurriedly securing the door from all intruders, the earl at length approached his son.
"Wouldst thou be free?" he said, abruptly. "Methinks thou art young enough still to love liberty better than chains, and perchance death. Speak, I tell thee; wouldst thou be free?"
"Free!" answered Alan, raising his head, with flashing eye and burning cheek; "would I be free? Ask of the chained lion, the caged bird, and they will tell thee the greenwood and forest glade are better, dearer, even though the chain were gemmed, the prison gilded. Would I be free? Thou knowest that I would."
"Swear, then, that thou wilt quit Scotland, and vow fealty to Edward; that never more will thy sword be raised save against the contemned and hated Bruce. Be faithful but to me and to King Edward, and thou shalt be free."
"Never!" answered Alan, proudly. "Earl of Buchan, I accept no conditions with my freedom; I will not be free, if only on this base condition. Turn recreant and traitor to my country and my king! resign the precious privilege of dying, if I may not live, for Scotland—I tell thee, never! Urge me no more."
"Nay, thou art but a boy, a foolish boy," continued the earl, struggling to speak persuadingly, "incapable of judging that which is right and best. I tell thee, I will give thee not freedom alone, but honor, station, wealth; I will acknowledge thee as my well-beloved son and heir; I will forget all that is past; nay, not e'en thy will or actions will I restrain; I will bind thee by no vow; thou shalt take no part with Edward; I will interfere not with thy peculiar politics; e'en what thou wilt thou shalt do, aye, and have—and all this but on one condition, so slight and simple that thou art worse than fool an thou refusest."
"Speak on," muttered Alan, without raising his head. "I hear."
"Give me but information of the movements of him thou[Pg 156] callest king," replied Buchan, in a low yet emphatically distinct voice; "give me but a hint as to where we may meet him in combat—in all honorable and knightly combat, thou knowest that I mean—give me but information such as this, and thou art free, unshackled, in condition as in limb."
"In other words, betray him," replied Alan, starting up. "Purchase my freedom with the price of his! mine, of nothing worth, aye, less than nothing, redeemed by his! Oh, shame, shame on thee, my lord! Well mayest thou offer me freedom of action as in will on such condition. Of little heed to Edward were the resistance of all Scotland, were Robert in his power. Honor, station, wealth!—oh, knowest thou the human heart so little as to believe these can exist with black treachery and fell remorse? Once and forever, I tell thee thine offers are in vain. Were death in one scale, and free, unshackled liberty in the other, and thou badest me choose between, I would not so stain my soul. Death, death itself were welcome, aye, worse than death—confinement, chains. I would hug them to my heart as precious boons, rather than live and walk the earth a traitor."
"Beware!" muttered the earl; "tempt me not too far, rash boy. I would not do thee ill; I would have pity on thy erring youth, remembering the evil counsels, the base heart which hath guided thee."
"Do thou beware!" retorted Alan, fiercely. "Speak not such foul words to me. Father, as I know thou art in blood, there are ties far stronger which bind me to my mother—ties, neglect, forgetfulness, indifference as thine can never know. Pity, aye, mercy's self, I scorn them, for I need them not."
"Ha! sayest thou so; then I swear thou shalt not have them!" exclaimed the earl, rage again obtaining the ascendant. "I would have saved thee; I would have given thee freedom, though I needed not the condition that I offered. Thinkest thou I do not know that the traitor Bruce and his followers will return hither, and fall into the net prepared? thinkest thou I know not he is with thee, aye, that he would not have left his patriot countess thus slightly guarded, an he hoped not to return himself? He cannot escape me—the murder of Sir John Comyn will be avenged."
"He shall, he will escape thee, proud earl," undauntedly returned Alan. "The savior of his wretched country will[Pg 157] not be forced to bow before such as thee; he will be saved out of the net prepared—harassed, chased, encompassed as he is. I tell thee, Earl of Buchan, he will escape thee yet."
"Then, by heaven, thy head shall fall for his!" fiercely replied the earl. "If he return not, he has been forewarned, prepared, and I, fool as I was, have thought not of this danger. Look to it, proud boy, if the Bruce return not forty-eight hours hence, and thou art still silent, thou diest."
He held up his clenched hand in a threatening attitude, but Alan neither moved nor spoke, firmly returning the earl's infuriated gaze till the door closed on his father's retreating form. He heard the bolts drawn, the heavy tramp of the guard, and then he threw himself on the couch, and buried his face in his hands.