In a circular apartment of the lower floor in Kildrummie keep, its stone floor but ill covered with rushes, and the walls hung with the darkest and rudest arras, Sir Christopher Seaton reclined on a rough couch, in earnest converse with his brother-in-law, Nigel. Lady Seaton was also within the chamber, at some little distance from the knights, engaged in preparing lint and healing ointments, with the aid of an attendant, for the wounded, and ready at the first call to rise and attend them, as s
e had done unremittingly during the continuance of the siege. The countenances of both warriors were slightly changed from the last time we beheld them. The severity of his wounds had shed a cast almost of age on the noble features of Seaton, but care and deep regret had mingled with that pallor; and perhaps on the face of Nigel, which three short weeks before had beamed forth such radiant hope, the change was more painful. He had escaped with but slight flesh wounds, but disappointment and anxiety were now vividly impressed on his features; the smooth brow would unconsciously wrinkle in deep and unexpressed thought; the lip, to which love, joy, and hope alone had once seemed natural, now often compressed, and his eye flashed, till his whole countenance seemed stern, not with the sternness of a tyrannical, changed and chafing mood—no, 'twas the sternness most fearful to behold in youth, of thought, deep, bitter, whelming thought; and sterner even than it had been yet was the expression on his features as he spoke this day with Seaton.
"He must die," were the words which broke a long and anxious pause, and fell in deep yet emphatic tones from the lips of Seaton; "yes, die! Perchance the example may best arrest the spreading contagion of treachery around us."
"I know not, I fear not; yet as thou sayest he must die," replied Nigel, speaking as in deep thought; "would that the noble enemy, who thus scorned to benefit by the offered treason, had done on him the work of death himself. I love not the necessity nor the deed."
"Yet it must be, Nigel. Is there aught else save death, the death of a traitor, which can sufficiently chastise a crime like[Pg 222] this? Well was it the knave craved speech of Hereford himself. I marvel whether the majesty of England had resisted a like temptation."
"Seaton, he would not," answered the young man. "I knew him, aye, studied him in his own court, and though I doubt not there was a time when chivalry was strongest in the breast of Edward, it was before ambition's fatal poison had corroded his heart. Now he would deem all things honorable in the art of war, aye, even the delivery of a castle through the treachery of a knave."
"And he hath more in yon host to think with him than with the noble Hereford," resumed Sir Christopher; "yet this is but idle parley, and concerneth but little our present task. In what temper do our men receive the tidings of this foul treason?"
"Our own brave fellows call aloud for vengeance on the traitor; nay, had I not rescued him from their hands, they would have torn him limb from limb in their rage. But there are others, Seaton—alas! the more numerous body now—and they speak not, but with moody brows and gloomy mutterings prowl up and down the courts."
"Aye, the coward hearts," answered Seaton, "their good wishes went with him, and but low-breathed curses follow our efforts for their freedom. Yes, it must be, if it be but as a warning unto others. See to it, Nigel; an hour before the set of sun he dies."
A brief pause followed his words, whose low sternness of tone betrayed far more than the syllables themselves. Both warriors remained a while plunged in moody thought, which Seaton was the first to break.
"And how went the last attack and defence?" he asked; "they told me, bravely."
"Aye, so bravely, that could we but reinforce our fighting men, aided as we are by impenetrable walls, we might dream still of conquest; they have gained little as yet, despite their nearer approach. Hand to hand we have indeed struggled on the walls, and hurled back our foremost foes in their own intrenchments. Our huge fragments of rocks have dealt destruction on one of their towers, crushing all who manned it beneath the ruins."
"And I lie here when such brave work is going on beside[Pg 223] me, even as a bedridden monk or coward layman, when my whole soul is in the fight," said the knight, bitterly, and half springing from his couch. "When will these open wounds—to the foul fiend with them and those who gave them!—when will they let me mount and ride again as best befits a warrior? Better slain at once than lie here a burden, not a help—taking from those whose gallant efforts need it more the food we may not have for long. I will not thus be chained; I'll to the action, be my life the forfeit!"
He sprung up, and for a moment stood upon his feet, but with a low groan of pain instantly fell back, the dew of weakness gathering on his brow. Lady Seaton was at his side on the instant to bathe his temples and his hands, yet without one reproachful word, for she knew the anguish it was to his brave heart to lie thus disabled, when every loyal hand was needed for his country.
"Nigel, I would that I might join thee. Remember, 'tis no mean game we play; we hold not out as marauding chieftains against a lawful king; we struggle not in defence of petty rights, of doubtful privileges. 'Tis for Scotland, for King Robert still we strive. Did this castle hold out, aye, compel the foe to raise the siege, much, much would be done for Scotland. Others would do as we have done; many, whose strongholds rest in English hands, would rise and expel the foe. Had we but reinforcements of men and stores, all might still be well."
"Aye," answered Nigel, bitterly, "but with all Scotland crushed 'neath English chains, her king and his bold patriots fugitives and exiles, ourselves the only Scottish force in arms, the only Scottish castle which resists the tyrant, how may this be, whence may come increase of force, of store? Seaton Seaton, thine are bright dreams—would that they were real."
"Wouldst thou then give up at once, and strive no more? It cannot be."
"Never!" answered his companion, passionately. "Ere English feet shall cross these courts and English colors wave above these towers, the blood of the defenders must flow beneath their steps. They gain not a yard of earth save at the bright sword's point; not a rood of grass unstained by Scottish blood. Give up! not till my arm can wield no sword, my voice no more shout 'Forward for the Bruce!'"
"Then we will hope on, dream on, Nigel, and despair not,"[Pg 224] replied Seaton, in the same earnest tone. "We know not yet what may be, and, improbable as it seems now, succors may yet arrive. How long doth last the truce?"
"For eighteen hours, two of which have passed."
"Didst thou demand it?"
"No," replied Nigel. "It was proffered by the earl, as needed for a strict examination of the traitor Evan Roy, and accepted in the spirit with which it was offered."
"Thou didst well; and the foul traitor—where hast thou lodged him?"
"In the western turret, strongly guarded. I would not seek thy counsel until I had examined and knew the truth."
"And thine own judgment?"
"Was as thine. It is an ill necessity, yet it must be."
"Didst pronounce his sentence?"
Nigel answered in the affirmative.
"And how was it received?"
"In the same sullen silence on the part of the criminal as he had borne during his examination. Methought a low murmur of discontent escaped from some within the hall, but it was drowned in the shout of approbation from the men-at-arms, and the execrations they lavished on the traitor as they bore him away, so I heeded it not."
"But thou wilt heed it," said a sweet voice beside him, and Agnes, who had just entered the chamber, laid her hand on his arm and looked beseechingly in his face. "Dearest Nigel, I come a pleader."
"And for whom, my beloved?" he asked, his countenance changing into its own soft beautiful expression as he gazed on her, "What can mine Agnes ask that Nigel may not grant?"
"Nay, I am no pleader for myself," she said; "I come on the part of a wretched wife and aged mother, beseeching the gift of life."
"And for a traitor, Agnes?"
"I think of him but as a husband and son, dearest Nigel," she said, more timidly, for his voice was stern. "They tell me he is condemned to death, and his wretched wife and mother besought my influence with thee; and indeed it needed little entreaty, for when death is so busy around us, when in this fearful war we see the best and bravest of our friends fall victims every day, oh, I would beseech you to spare life when it[Pg 225] may be. Dearest, dearest Nigel, have mercy on this wretched man; traitor as he is, oh, do not take his life—do not let thy lips sentence him to death. Wilt thou not be merciful?"
"If the death of one man will preserve the lives of many, how may that one be spared?" said Sir Nigel, folding the sweet pleader closer to him, though his features spoke no relaxation of his purpose. "Sweet Agnes, do not ask this, give me not the bitter pain of refusing aught to thee. Thou knowest not all the mischief and misery which pardon to a traitor such as this will do; thou listenest only to thy kind heart and the sad pleadings of those who love this man. Now listen to me, beloved, and judge thyself. Did I believe a pardon would bring back the traitor to a sense of duty, to a consciousness of his great crime—did I believe giving life to him would deter others from the same guilt, I should scarce wait even for thy sweet pleading to give him both liberty and life; but I know him better than thou, mine Agnes. He is one of those dark, discontented, rebellious spirits, that never rest in stirring up others to be like them; who would employ even the life I gave him to my own destruction, and that of the brave and faithful soldiers with me."
"But send him hence, dearest Nigel," still entreated Agnes. "Give him life, but send him from the castle; will not this remove the danger of his influence with others?"
"And give him field and scope to betray us yet again, sweet one. It were indeed scorning the honorable counsel of Hereford to act thus; for trust me, Agnes, there are not many amid our foes would resist temptation as he hath done."
"Yet would not keeping him close prisoner serve thee as well as death, Nigel? Bethink thee, would it not spare the ill of taking life?"
"Dearest, no," he answered. "There are many, alas! too many within these walls who need an example of terror to keep them to their duty. They will see that treachery avails not with the noble Hereford, and that, discovered by me, it hath no escape from death. If this man be, as I imagine, in league with other contentious spirits—for he could scarce hope to betray the castle into the hands of the English without some aid within—his fate may strike such terror into other traitor hearts that their designs will be abandoned. Trust me, dearest, I do not do this deed of justice without deep regret; I grieve[Pg 226] for the necessity even as the deed, and yet it must be; and bitter as it is to refuse thee aught, indeed I cannot grant thy boon."
"Yet hear me once more, Nigel. Simple and ignorant as I am, I cannot answer such arguments as thine; yet may it not be that this deed of justice, even while it strikes terror, may also excite the desire for revenge, and situated as we are were it not better to avoid all such bitterness, such heart-burnings amongst the people?"
"We must brave it, dearest," answered Nigel, firmly, "The direct line of justice and of duty may not be turned aside for such fears as these."
"Nor do I think they have foundation," continued Sir Christopher Seaton. "Thou hast pleaded well and kindly, gentle maiden, yet gladly as we would do aught to pleasure thee, this that thou hast asked, alas! must not be. The crime itself demands punishment, and even could we pardon that, duty to our country, our king, ourselves, calls loudly for his death, lest his foul treachery should spread."
The eyes of the maiden filled with tears.
"Then my last hope is over," she said, sadly. "I looked to thy influence, Sir Christopher, to plead for me, even if mine own supplications should fail; and thou judgest even as Nigel, not as my heart could wish."
"We judge as men and soldiers, gentle maiden; as men who, charged with a most solemn responsibility, dare listen to naught save the voice of justice, however loudly mercy pleads."
"And didst thou think, mine Agnes, if thy pleading was of no avail, the entreaty of others could move me?" whispered Nigel, in a voice which, though tender, was reproachful. "Dearest and best, oh, thou knowest not the pang it is to refuse thee even this, and to feel my words have filled those eyes with tears. Say thou wilt not deem me cruel, abiding by justice when there is room for mercy?"
"I know thee better than to judge thee thus," answered Agnes, tearfully; "the voice of duty must have spoken loudly to urge thee to this decision, and I may not dispute it; yet would that death could be averted. There was madness in that woman's eyes," and she shuddered as she spoke.
"Of whom speakest thou, love?" Nigel asked, and Seaton looked the question.[Pg 227]
"Of his wife," she replied. "She came to me distracted, and used such dreadful words, menaces and threats they seemed; but his mother, more composed, assured me they meant nothing, they were but the ravings of distress, and yet I fear to look on her again without his pardon."
"And thou shalt not, my beloved; these are not scenes and words for such as thee. Rest here with Christine and good Sir Christopher; to tend and cheer a wounded knight is a fitter task for thee, sweet one, than thus to plead a traitor's cause."
Pressing his lips upon her brow as he spoke, he placed her gently on a settle by Sir Christopher; then crossing the apartment, he paused a moment to whisper to Lady Seaton.
"Look to her, my dear sister; she has been terrified, though she would conceal it. Let her not leave thee till this fatal duty is accomplished."
Lady Seaton assured him of her compliance, and he left the apartment.
He had scarcely quitted the postern before he himself encountered Jean Roy, a woman who, even in her mildest moments, evinced very little appearance of sanity, and who now, from her furious and distracting gestures, seemed wrought up to no ordinary pitch of madness. She kept hovering round him, uttering menaces and entreaties in one and the same breath, declaring one moment that her husband was no traitor, and had only done what every true-hearted Scotsman ought to do, if he would save himself and those he loved from destruction; the next, piteously acknowledging his crime, and wildly beseeching mercy. For a while Nigel endeavored, calmly and soothingly, to reason with her, but it was of no avail: louder and fiercer became her curses and imprecations; beseeching heaven to hurl down all its maledictions upon him and the woman he loved, and refuse him mercy when he most needed it. Perceiving her violence becoming more and more outrageous, Nigel placed her in charge of two of his men-at-arms, desiring them to treat her kindly, but not to lose sight of her, and keep her as far as possible from the scene about to be enacted. She was dragged away, struggling furiously, and Nigel felt his heart sink heavier within him. It was not that he wavered in his opinion, that he believed, situated as he was, it was better to spare the traitor's life than excite to a flame[Pg 228] the already aroused and angered populace. He thought indeed terror might do much; but whether it was the entreating words of Agnes, or the state of the unhappy Jean, there had come upon him a dim sense of impending ill; an impression that the act of justice about to be performed would bring matters to a crisis, and the ruin of the garrison be consummated, ere he was aware it had begun. The shadow of the future appeared to have enfolded him, but still he wavered not. The hours sped: his preparations were completed, and at the time appointed by Seaton, with as much of awful solemnity as circumstances would admit, the soul of the traitor was launched into eternity. Men, women, and children had gathered round the temporary scaffold; every one within the castle, save the maimed and wounded, thronged to that centre court, and cheers and shouts, and groans and curses, mingled strangely on the air.
Clad in complete steel, but bareheaded, Sir Nigel Bruce had witnessed the act of justice his voice had pronounced, and, after a brief pause, he stood forward on the scaffold, and in a deep, rich voice addressed the multitude ere they separated. Eloquently, forcibly, he spoke of the guilt, the foul guilt of treachery, now when Scotland demanded all men to join together hand and heart as one—now when the foe was at their gates; when, if united, they might yet bid defiance to the tyrant, who, if they were defeated, would hold them slaves. He addressed them as Scottish men and freemen, as soldiers, husbands, and fathers, as children of the brave, who welcomed death with joy, rather than life in slavery and degradation; and when his words elicited a shout of exultation and applause from the greater number, he turned his eye on the group of malcontents, and sternly and terribly bade them beware of a fate similar to that which they had just witnessed; for the gallant Earl of Hereford, he said, would deal with all Scottish traitors as with Evan Roy, and once known as traitors within the castle walls, he need not speak their doom, for they had witnessed it; and then changing his tone, frankly and beseechingly he conjured them to awake from the dull, sluggish sleep of indifference and fear, to put forth their energies as men, as warriors; their country, their king, their families, called on them, and would they not hear? He bade them arise, awake to their duty, and all that had been should never be recalled.[Pg 229] He spoke with a brief yet mighty eloquence that seemed to carry conviction with it. Many a stern face and darkened brow relaxed, and there was hope in many a patriot breast as that group dispersed, and all was once more martial bustle on the walls.
"Well and wisely hast thou spoken, my son," said the aged Abbot of Scone, who had attended the criminal's last moments, and now, with Nigel, sought the keep. "Thy words have moved those rebellious spirits, have calmed the rising tempest even as oil flung on the troubled waves; thine eloquence was even as an angel voice 'mid muttering fiends. Yet thou art still sad, still anxious. My son, this should not be."
"It must be, father," answered the young man. "I have looked beyond that oily surface and see naught save darker storms and fiercer tempests; those spirits need somewhat more than a mere voice. Father, reproach me not as mistrusting the gracious heaven in whose keeping lie our earthly fates. I know the battle is not to the strong, 'tis with the united, the faithful, and those men are neither. My words have stirred them for the moment, as a pebble flung 'mid the troubled waters—a few brief instants and all trace is passed, we see naught but the blackened wave. But speak not of these things; my trust is higher than earth, and let man work his will."
Another week passed, and the fierce struggle continued, alternating success, one day with the besiegers, the next with the besieged. The scene of action was now principally on the walls—a fearful field, for there was no retreat—and often the combatants, entwined in a deadly struggle, fell together into the moat. Still there were no signs of wavering on either side, still did the massive walls give no sign of yielding to the tremendous and continued discharge of heavy stones, that against battlements less strongly constructed must long ere this have dealt destruction and inevitable mischief to the besieged. One tower, commanding the causeway across the moat and its adjoining platform on the wall, had indeed been taken by the English, and was to them a decided advantage, but still their further progress even to the next tower was lingering and dubious, and it appeared evident to both parties that, from the utter impossibility of the Scotch obtaining supplies of provision and men, success must finally attend the Eng[Pg 230]lish; they would succeed more by the effects of famine than by their swords.
It was, as we have said, seven days after the execution of the traitor Roy. A truce for twelve hours had been concluded with the English, at the request of Sir Nigel Bruce, and safe conduct granted by the Earl of Hereford to those men, women, and children of the adjoining villages who chose even at this hour to leave the castle, but few, a very few took advantage of this permission, and these were mostly the widows and children of those who had fallen in the siege; a fact which caused some surprise, as the officers and men-at-arms imagined it would have been eagerly seized upon by all those contentious spirits who had appeared so desirous of a league with England. A quiet smile slightly curled the lips of Nigel as this information was reported to him—a smile as of a mind prepared for and not surprised at what he heard; but when left alone, the smile was gone, he folded his arms on his breast, his head was slightly bent forward, but had there been any present to have remarked him, they would have seen his features move and work with the intensity of internal emotion. Some mighty struggle he was enduring; something there was passing at his very heart, for when recalled from that trance by the heavy bell of the adjoining church chiming the hour of five, and he looked up, there were large drops of moisture on his brow, and his beautiful eye seemed for the moment strained and blood-shot. He paced the chamber slowly and pensively till there was no outward mark of agitation, and then he sought for Agnes.
She was alone in an upper chamber of the keep, looking out from the narrow casement on a scene of hill and vale, and water, which, though still wintry from the total absence of leaf and flower, was yet calm and beautiful in the declining sun, and undisturbed by the fearful scenes and sounds which met the glance and ear on every other side, seemed even as a paradise of peace. It had been one of those mild, soft days of February, still more rare in Scotland than in England, and on the heart and sinking frame of Agnes its influence had fallen, till, almost unconsciously, she wept. The step of Nigel caused her hastily to dash these tears aside, and as he stood by her and silently folded his arm around her, she looked up in his face with a smile. He sought to return it, but the sight of such[Pg 231] emotion, trifling as it was, caused his heart to sink with indescribable fear; his lip quivered, as utterly to prevent the words he sought to speak, and as he clasped her to his bosom and bent his head on hers, a low yet instantly suppressed moan burst from him.
"Nigel, dearest Nigel, what has chanced? Oh, speak to me!" she exclaimed, clasping his hand in both hers, and gazing wildly in his face. "Thou art wounded or ill, or wearied unto death. Oh, let me undo this heavy armor, dearest; seek but a brief interval of rest. Speak to me, I know thou art not well."
"It is but folly, my beloved, a momentary pang that weakness caused. Indeed, thy fears are causeless; I am well, quite well," he answered, struggling with himself, and subduing with an effort his emotion. "Mine own Agnes, thou wilt not doubt me; look not upon me so tearfully, 'tis passed, 'tis over now."
"And thou wilt not tell me that which caused it, Nigel? Hast thou aught of suffering which thou fearest to tell thine Agnes? Oh! do not fear it; weak, childlike as I am, my soul will find strength for it."
"And thou shalt know all, all in a brief while," he said, her sweet pleading voice rendering the task of calmness more difficult. "Yet tell me first thy thoughts, my love. Methought thy gaze was on yon peaceful landscape as I entered, and yet thine eyes were dimmed with tears."
"And yet I know not wherefore," she replied, "save the yearnings for peace were stronger, deeper than they should be, and I pictured a cot where love might dwell in yon calm valley, and wished that this fierce strife was o'er."
"'Tis in truth no scene for thee, mine own. I know, I feel thou pinest for freedom, for the fresh, pure, stainless air of the mountain, the valley's holy calm; thine ear is sick with the fell sounds that burst upon it; thine eye must turn in loathing from this fierce strife. Agnes, mine own Agnes, is it not so? would it not be happiness, aye, heaven's own bliss, to seek some peaceful home far, far away from this?"
He spoke hurriedly and more passionately than was his wont, but Agnes only answered—
"With thee, Nigel, it were bliss indeed."
"With me," he said; "and couldst thou not be happy were[Pg 232] I not at thy side? Listen to me, beloved," and his voice became as solemnly earnest as it had previously been hurried. "I sought thee, armed I thought with fortitude sufficient for the task; sought thee, to beseech, implore thee to seek safety and peace for a brief while apart from me, till these fearful scenes are passed. Start not, and oh, do not look upon me thus. I know all that strength of nerve, of soul, which bids thee care not for the dangers round thee. I know that where I am thy loving spirit feels no fear; but oh, Agnes, for my sake, if not for thine own, consent to fly ere it be too late; consent to seek safety far from this fatal tower. Let me not feel that on thee, on thee, far dearer than my life, destruction, and misery, and suffering in a thousand fearful shapes may fall. Let me but feel thee safe, far from this terrible scene, and then, come what will, it can have no pang."
"And thee," murmured the startled girl, on whose ear the words of Nigel had fallen as with scarce half their meaning, "thee, wouldst thou bid me leave thee, to strive on, suffer on, and oh, merciful heaven! perchance fall alone? Nigel, Nigel, how may this be? are we not one, only one, and how may I dwell in safety without thee—how mayest thou suffer without me?"
"Dearest and best!" he answered, passionately, "oh, that we were indeed one; that the voice of heaven had bound us one, long, long ere this! and yet—no, no, 'tis better thus," and again he struggled with emotion, and spoke calmly. "Agnes, beloved, precious as thou art in these hours of anxiety, dear, dearer than ever, in thy clinging, changeless love, yet tempt me not selfishly to retain thee by my side, when liberty, and life, and joy await thee beyond these fated walls. Thy path is secured; all that can assist, can accelerate thy flight waits but thy approval. The dress of a minstrel boy is procured, and will completely conceal and guard thee through the English camp. Our faithful friend, the minstrel seer, will be thy guide, and lead thee to a home of peace and safety, until my brother's happier fortune dawns; he will guard and love thee for thine own and for my sake. Speak to me, beloved; thou knowest this good old man, and I so trust him that I have no fear for thee. Oh, do not pause, and ere this truce be over let me, let me feel that thou art safe and free, and may in time be happy."[Pg 233]
"In time," she repeated slowly, as if to herself, and then, rousing herself from that stupor of emotion, looked up with a countenance on which a sudden glow had spread. "And why hast thou so suddenly resolved on this?" she asked, calmly; "why shouldst thou fear for me more now than hitherto, dearest Nigel? Hath not the danger always been the same, and yet thou ne'er hast breathed of parting? are not thy hopes the same—what hath chanced unknown to me, that thou speakest and lookest thus? tell me, ere thou urgest more."
"I will tell thee what I fear, my love," he answered, reassured by her firmness; "much that is seen not, guessed not by my comrades. They were satisfied that my appeal had had its effect, and the execution of Evan Roy was attended with no disturbance, no ill will amongst those supposed to be of his party—nay, that terror did its work, and all ideas of treachery which might have been before encouraged were dismissed. I, too, believed this, Agnes, for a while; but a few brief hours were sufficient to prove the utter fallacy of the dream. Some secret conspiracy is, I am convinced, carrying on within these very walls. I know and feel this, and yet so cautious, so secret are their movements, whatever they may be, that I cannot guard against them. There are, as thou knowest, fewer true fighting men amongst us than any other class, and these are needed to man the walls and guard against the foe without; they may not be spared to watch as spies their comrades—nay, I dare not even breathe such thoughts, lest their bold hearts should faint and fail, and they too demand surrender ere evil come upon us from within. What will be that evil I know not, and therefore cannot guard against it. I dare not employ these men upon the walls, I dare not bring them out against the foe, for so bitterly do I mistrust them, I should fear even then they would betray us. I only know that evil awaits us, and therefore, my beloved, I do beseech thee, tarry not till it be upon us; depart while thy path is free."
"Yet if they sought safety and peace, if they tire of this warfare," she replied, disregarding his last words, "wherefore not depart to-day, when egress was permitted; bethink thee, dearest Nigel, is not this proof thy fears are ill founded, and that no further ill hangs over us than that which threatens from without?"[Pg 234]
"Alas! no," he said, "it but confirms my suspicions; I obtained this safe conduct expressly to nullify or confirm them. Had they departed as I wished, all would have been well; but they linger, and I can feel their plans are maturing, and therefore they will not depart. Oh, Agnes," he continued, bitterly, "my very soul is crushed beneath this weight of unexpressed anxiety and care. Had I but to contend with our English foe, but to fight a good and honorable fight, to struggle on, conscious that to the last gasp the brave inmates of this fortress would follow me, and Edward would find naught on which to wreak his vengeance but the dead bodies of his foes, my task were easy as 'twere glorious; but to be conscious of secret brooding evil each morn that rises, each night that falls, to dread what yet I know not, to see, perchance, my brave fellows whelmed, chained, through a base treachery impossible to guard against—oh! Agnes, 'tis this I fear."
"Yet have they not seemed more willing, more active in their assigned tasks since the execution of their comrade," continued Agnes, with all a woman's gentle artifice, still seeking to impart hope, even when she felt that none remained; "may it not be that, in reality, they repent them of former traitorous designs, and remain behind to aid thee to the last? Thou sayest that palpable proof of this brooding evil thou canst not find, then do not heed its voice. Let no fear of me, of my safety, add its pang; mine own Nigel, indeed I fear them not."
"I know that all I urge will naught avail with thee, beloved," he answered, somewhat less agitated. "I know thy gentle love is all too deep, too pure, too strong, to share my fears for thee, and oh, I bless thee, bless thee for the sweet solace of that faithful love! yet, yet, I may not listen to thy wishes. All that thou sayest is but confirmation of the brooding evil; they are active, willing, but to hide their dark designs. Yet even were there not this evil to dread, no dream of treachery, still, still, I would send thee hence, sweet one. Famine and blood, and chains, and death—oh, no, no! thou must not stay for these."
"And whither wouldst thou send me, Nigel, and for what?" she asked, still calmly, though her quivering lip denoted that self-possession was fast failing. "Why?"
"Whither? to safety, freedom, peace, my best beloved!" he[Pg 235] answered, fervently; "for what? that happier, brighter days may beam for thee, that thou mayest live to bless and be a blessing; dearest, best, cling not to a withered stem, thou mayest be happy yet."
"And wilt thou join me, if I seek this home of safety, Nigel?" she laid her hand on his arm, and fixed her eyes unflinchingly upon his face. He could not meet that glance, a cold shudder passed over his frame ere he could reply.
"Mine own Agnes," and even then he paused, for his quivering lip could not give utterance to his thoughts, and a minute rolled in that deep stillness, and still those anxious eyes moved not from his face. At length voice returned, and it was sad yet deeply solemn, "Our lives rest not in our own hands," he said; "and who when they part may look to meet again? Beloved, if life be spared, canst doubt that I will join thee? yet, situated as I am, governor of a castle about to fall, a patriot, and a Bruce, brother to the noble spirit who wears our country's crown, and has dared to fling down defiance to a tyrant, Agnes, mine own Agnes, how may I dream of life? I would send thee hence ere that fatal moment come; I would spare thee this deep woe. I would bid thee live, beloved, live till years had shed sweet peace upon thy heart, and thou wert happy once again."
There was a moment's pause; the features of Agnes had become convulsed with agony as Nigel spoke, and her hands had closed with fearful pressure on his arm, but his last words, spoken in his own rich, thrilling voice, called back the stagnant blood.
"No, no; I will not leave thee!" she sobbed forth, as from the sudden failing of strength in every limb she sunk kneeling at his feet. "Nigel, Nigel, I will not leave thee; in life or in death I will abide by thee. Force me not from thee; seek not to tempt me by the tale of safety, freedom, peace; thou knowest not the depth, the might of woman's love, if thou thinkest things like these can weigh aught with her, even if chains and death stood frowningly beside. I will not leave thee; whom have I beside thee, for whom else wouldst thou call on me to live? Alone, alone, utterly alone, save thee! Wilt thou bid me hence, and leave thee to meet thy fate alone—thee, to whom my mother gave me—thee, without whom my very life is naught? Nigel, oh, despise me not for these wild words,[Pg 236] unmaidenly as they sound; oh, let me speak them, or my heart will break!"
"Despise thee for these blessed words!" Nigel answered, passionately, as he raised her from the ground, and clasped her to his heart. "Oh, thou knowest not the bliss they give; yet, yet would I speak of parting, implore thee still to leave me, aye, though in that parting my very heart-strings snap. Agnes, how may I bear to see thee in the power of the foe, perchance insulted, persecuted, tortured with the ribald admiration of the rude crowd, and feel I have no power to save thee, no claim to bind thee to my side. What are the mere chains of love in such an hour, abiding by me, as thou mightst, till our last hope is over, and English colors wave above this fortress—then, dearest, oh, must we not, shall we not be rudely parted?"
"No, no! Who shall dare to part us?" she said, as she clung sobbing to his breast. "Who shall dare to do this thing, and say I may not tend thee, follow thee, even until death?"
"Who? our captors, dearest. Thinkest thou they will heed thy tender love, thine anguish? will they have hearts for aught save for thy loveliness, sweet one? Think, think of terrors like to this, and oh, still wilt thou refuse to fly?"
"But thy sister, the Lady Seaton, Nigel, doth she not stay, doth she not brave these perils?" asked Agnes, shuddering at her lover's words, yet clinging to him still. "If she escapes such evil, why, oh, why may not I?"
"She is Seaton's wife, sweet one, bound to him by the voice of heaven, by the holiest of ties; the noble knights who head our foes will protect her in all honorable keeping; but for thee, Agnes, even if the ills I dread be as naught, there is yet one I have dared not name, lest it should pain thee, yet one that is most probable as 'tis most fearful; thou canst not hide thy name, and as a daughter of Buchan, oh, will they not give thee to a father's keeping?"
"The murderer of my brother—my mother's jailer! Oh, Nigel, Nigel, to look on him were more than death!" she wildly exclaimed. "Yet, yet once known as Agnes of Buchan, this will, this must be; but leave thee now, leave thee to a tyrant's doom, if indeed, indeed thou fallest in his hands—leave thee, when faithful love and woman's tenderness are more than ever needed—leave thee for a fear like this, no, no, I will not. Nigel, I will rest with thee. Speak not, answer not; give us[Pg 237] one short moment, and then—oh, all the ills may be averted by one brief word—and I, oh, can I speak it?" She paused in fearful agitation, and every limb shook as if she must have fallen; the blood rushed up to cheek, and brow, and neck, as, fixing her beautiful eyes on Nigel's face, she said, in a low yet thrilling voice, "Let the voice of heaven hallow the vows we have so often spoken, Nigel. Give me a right, a sacred right to bear thy name, to be thine own, at the altar's foot, by the holy abbot's blessing. Let us pledge our troth, and then let what will come, no man can part us. I am thine, only thine!"
Without waiting for a reply, she buried her face in his bosom, and Nigel could feel her heart throb as if 'twould burst its bounds, her frame quiver as if the torrent of blood, checked and stayed to give strength for the effort, now rushed back with such overwhelming force through its varied channels as to threaten life itself.
"Agnes, my own noble, self-devoted love! oh, how may I answer thee?" he cried, tears of strong emotion coursing down his cheek—tears, and the warrior felt no shame. "How have I been deserving of love like this—how may I repay it? how bless thee for such words? Mine own, mine own! this would indeed guard thee from the most dreaded ills; yet how may I link that self-devoted heart to one whose thread of life is well-nigh spun? how may I make thee mine, when a few brief weeks of misery and horror must part us, and on earth, forever?"
"No, no; thou knowest not all a wife may do, my Nigel," she said, as she raised her head from his bosom, and faintly smiled, though her frame still shook; "how she may plead even with a tyrant, and find mercy; or if this fail, how she may open iron gates and break through bonds, till freedom may be found. Oh, no, we shall not wed to part, beloved; but live and yet be happy, doubt it not; and then, oh, then forget the words that joined us, made us one, had birth from other lips than thine;—thou wilt forget, forgive this, Nigel?"
"Forget—forgive! that to thy pure, unselfish soul I owe the bliss which e'en at this hour I feel," he answered, passionately kissing the beautiful brow upturned to his; "forget words that have proved—had I needed proof—how purely, nobly, faithfully I am beloved; how utterly, how wholly thou hast forgotten all of self for me! No, no! were thy words proved true, might I indeed live blessed with thee the life allotted man,[Pg 238] each year, each month I would recall this hour, and bless thee for its love. But oh, it may not be!" and his voice so suddenly lost its impassioned fervor, that the breast of Agnes filled with new alarm. "Dearest, best! thou must not dream of life, of happiness with me. I may not mock thee with such blessed, but, alas! delusive hopes; my doom hath gone forth, revealed when I knew it not, confirmed by that visioned seer but few short weeks ago. Agnes, my noble Agnes, wherefore shouldst thou wed with death? I know that I must die!"
The solemn earnestness of his words chased the still lingering glow from the lips and cheek of the maiden, and a cold shiver passed through her frame, but still she clung to him, and said—
"It matters not; my maiden love, my maiden troth is pledged to thee—in life or in death I am thine alone. I will not leave thee," she said, firmly and calmly. "Nigel, if it be indeed as thou sayest, that affliction, and—and all thou hast spoken, must befall thee, the more need is there for the sustaining and the soothing comfort of a woman's love. Fear not for me, weak as I may have seemed, there is yet a spirit in me worthy of thy love. I will not unman thee for all thou mayest encounter. No, even if I follow thee to—to death, it shall be as a Bruce's wife. Ask not how I will contrive to abide by thee undiscovered, when, if it must be, the foe is triumphant; it will take time, and we have none to lose. Thou hast promised to forget all I have urged, all, save my love for thee; then, oh, fear me not, doubt me not, thine Agnes will not fail thee!"
Nigel gazed at her almost with surprise; she was no longer the gentle timid being who but a few minutes since had clung weeping to his bosom as a child. She was indeed very pale, and on her features was the stillness of marble; but she stood erect and unfaltering in her innocent loveliness, sustained by that mighty spirit which dwelt within. An emotion of deep reverence took possession of that warrior heart, and unable to resist the impulse, he bent his knee before her.
"Then let it be so," he said, solemnly, but oh, how fervently. "I will not torture mine own heart and thine by conjuring thee to fly; and now, here, at thy feet, Agnes, noble, generous being, let me swear solemnly, sacredly swear, that should life be preserved to me longer than I now dream of, should I indeed be spared to lavish on thee all a husband's love and care, never, never shalt thou have cause to regret this day! to mourn thy[Pg 239] faithful love was shown as it hath been—to weep the hour that, in the midst of danger, and darkness, and woe, hath joined our earthly fates, and made us one. And now," he continued, rising and folding her once more in his arms, "wilt thou meet me at the altar ere the truce concludes? 'tis but a brief while, a very brief while, my love; yet if it can be, I know thou wilt not shrink."
"I will not," she answered. "The hour thou namest I will meet thee. Lady Seaton," she added, slightly faltering, and the vivid blush rose to her temples, "I would see her, speak with her; yet—"
"She shall come to thee, mine own, prepared to love and hail thee sister, as she hath long done. She will not blame thee dearest; she loves, hath loved too faithfully herself. Fear not, I will leave naught for thee to tell that can bid that cheek glow as it doth now. She, too, will bless thee for thy love."
He imprinted a fervent kiss on her cheek, and hastily left her. Agnes remained standing as he had left her for several minutes, her hands tightly clasped, her whole soul speaking in her beautiful features, and then she sunk on her knees before a rudely-carved image of the Virgin and child, and prayed long and fervently. She did not weep, her spirit had been too painfully excited for such relief, but so wrapt was she in devotion, she knew not that Lady Seaton, with a countenance beaming in admiration and love, stood beside her, till she spoke.
"Rouse thee, my gentle one," she said, tenderly, as she twined her arm caressingly around her; "I may not let thee linger longer even here, for time passes only too quickly, and I shall have but little time to attire my beautiful bride for the altar. Nigel hath been telling such a tale of woman's love, that my good lord hath vowed, despite his weakness and his wounds, none else shall lead thee to the altar, and give thee to my brother, save himself. I knew that not even Nigel's influence would bid thee leave us, dearest," she continued, as Agnes hid her face in her bosom, "but I dreamed not such a spirit dwelt within this childlike heart, sweet one; thy lot must surely be for joy!"[Pg 240]