While these fearful scenes were passing in the hunting-lodge, Malcolm, the young page already mentioned, had contrived to elude the vigilance of the earl's numerous followers, and reach the brow of the hollow in perfect safety. Endowed with a sense and spirit above his years, and inspired by his devoted attachment to the countess and Sir Alan, the boy did not merely think of his own personal security, and of the simple act of warning the king against the treachery which awaited his return, but,
ith an eye and mind well practised in intelligent observation, he scanned the numbers, character, and peculiar situation of the foes which had so unexpectedly come upon them. Being peculiarly small and light in figure, and completely clothed in a dark green tunic and hose, which was scarcely discernible from the trees and shrubs around, he stole, in and out every brake and hollow, clambering lightly and noiselessly over crags, hanging like a broken branch from stunted trees, leaping with the elasticity of a youthful fawn over stream and shrub, and thus obtained a true and exact idea of the matter he desired. The boy's heart did indeed sink as he felt rescue would be utterly impossible; that in one direction the English force extended nearly a mile, guarding every ave[Pg 158]nue, every hollow in the forest, till it seemed next to impossible King Robert could escape, even if forewarned. Wherever he turned his steps the enemy appeared to lurk, but he wavered not in his purpose. Aware of the direction which the king would take in returning, Malcolm slackened not his speed until some three hours after he had quitted the hollow, and he stood before his sovereign well-nigh too exhausted for the utterance of his tale.
The first impulse of the king and his true-hearted followers was to dare all danger, and rescue the countess and her brave son at the expense of their lives; but Malcolm, flinging himself at the feet of Robert, adjured him, in the name of the countess, to remember and act upon the vow he had so solemnly pledged at parting. He earnestly and emphatically repeated the last injunctions of his lady, her deep anguish that the king, the savior of Scotland, should hazard all for her and her child—better they should die than Robert; but these entreaties were but anguish to the noble spirit who heard, aye, and felt their truth, though abide by them he could not. Again and again he questioned and cross-questioned as to their numbers and their strength, but Malcolm never wavered from his first account; clearly and concisely he gave every required information, and with bleeding hearts that little band of patriots felt they dared not hope to rescue and to conquer. Yet tacitly to assent to necessity, to retreat without one blow, to leave their faithful companions to death, without one stroke for vengeance at least, if not for relief, this should not be.
"We will see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, at least, my friends," King Robert said. "Is there one among ye would retreat, from, the narrative of a child, true as it may be? Remember the pass in Argyle; if necessary, your sovereign can protect your retreat now as then, and we shall at least feel we have struggled to rescue, striven for the mastery, even if it be in vain. Were my death, aye, the death of Scotland the forfeit, I could not so stain my knightly fame by such retreat. Let but the morning dawn, and we will ourselves mark the strength of our foes."
There was not one dissenting voice, rash as his determination might appear. The extraordinary skill and courage of their sovereign, displayed in so many instances during their perilous wanderings, were too fresh in their memories to permit[Pg 159] of one doubt, one fear, even had he led them on to certain death. To throw themselves from their tired chargers, to give them food, to lie down themselves for a brief repose on the turf, that they might be strengthened and cheered for the work of the morning, all this did not occupy much time; and if their slumbers were brief and troubled, it did not prevent their rising with, alacrity at the first peep of day to polish their arms, look to the sharpening of their swords and spears, share the rude huntsman's meal, and mount and ride with the first signal of their king.
But bold and brave as were these true-hearted men, successful as, comparatively speaking, they were in the numberless skirmishes which took place that day, darkness overtook them, with increase of glory indeed, but no nearer the accomplishment of their object than they had been in the morning.
With bitter sorrow King Robert had perceived the full confirmation of the page's words. The early close of the night attendant on the autumn season was also unfavorable to his views; the events of the day had fully convinced him that many an ambush was set in his path, that his personal safety was wholly incompatible with a night attack, and therefore he was compelled to remain on the defensive in one spot, which was fortunately barricaded and concealed by Nature, during the many long and weary hours forming an October night. Yet still the following day beheld him struggling on, in the face alike of disappointment, defeat, and danger the most imminent; still seeking the same object, still hoping against hope, and retreating only because the welfare of his country, of her unfortunate children, depended upon him; bands more and more numerous pressed upon him, coming from every side, that scarcely was one skilfully eluded ere he had to struggle against another. Nothing but the most consummate skill, the most patient courage, and coolest address could have extricated him from the fearful dangers which encompassed him. Again did his followers believe he bore a charmed life, for not only did he deal destruction, unhurt himself, but after three days almost incessant fighting and fatigue, he had brought them to a place of safety, with but the loss of five-and-twenty men.
But though painfully conscious that further efforts for the rescue of his friends were completely useless, King Robert could not rest satisfied without some more accurate knowledge[Pg 160] of their fate, and after some hurried yet anxious consultation. Sir James Douglas, with that daring which so marked his simplest action, declared that at all risks he would seek some tidings that would end their anxiety. In the disguise of a peasant he would be secure from all discovery, he said; and he had not the slightest fear as to the success of the adventure. Five others started up as he spoke entreating permission to take the same disguise and accompany him. It was granted; King Robert advising them, however, to adopt a diversity of costume, and keep each one apart as they approached inhabited districts, as their numbers might excite suspicion, even though the actual disguise was complete. With arms concealed beneath their various disguises, they departed that same evening, engaging to meet the king at the base of Ben-Cruchan, some miles more south than their present trysting. It was an anxious parting, and yet more when they were actually gone; for the high spirit and vein of humor which characterized the young Lord Douglas had power to cheer his friends even in the most painful moments. King Robert, indeed, exerted himself, but this last stroke had been a heavy one; knowing so well the character of Edward, he trembled both for the countess and her noble son, perhaps less for the latter than the former, for he hoped and believed the Earl of Buchan, if indeed he were their captor, would at least have some mercy on his son, but for the countess he knew that there was no hope. The character, the sentiments of the earl had been noticed by the Bruce when both were at the court of Edward, and he felt and knew that any excuse to rid him of a wife whose virtues were obnoxious to him would be acted on with joy. And here, perhaps, it may be well to say a few words as to the real nature of King Robert's sentiments towards Isabella of Buchan, as from the anxiety her detention occasioned they may be so easily misunderstood.
We have performed our task but ill if our readers have imagined aught but the most purely noble, most chivalric sentiments actuated the heart of the king. Whatever might have been the nature of those sentiments in earlier days, since his marriage with the daughter of the Earl of Mar they had never entered his soul.
He had always believed the Lady Isabella's union with Lord John Comyn was one of choice, not of necessity, nor[Pg 161] did his visit to her after the battle of Falkirk recall any former feeling. His mind had been under the heavy pressure of that self-reproach which the impressive words of Wallace had first awakened; the wretched state of his country, the tyranny of Edward, occupied the mind of the man in which the emotions of the boy had merged. He was, too, a husband and a father; and he was, as his fond wife so trustingly believed, too nobly honorable to entertain one thought to her dishonor. He looked on Isabella of Buchan as one indeed demanding his utmost esteem and gratitude, his most faithful friendship, and he secretly vowed that she should have it; but these emotions took not their coloring from the past, they were excited simply by her high-minded devotion to the cause of her country, her unshrinking patriotism, her noble qualities, alike as a mother, subject, friend. He felt but as one noble spirit ever feels for a kindred essence, heightened perhaps by the dissimilarity of sex, but aught of love, even in its faintest shadow, aught of dishonorable feelings towards her or his own wife never entered his wildest dream. It was the recollection of her unwavering loyalty, of the supporting kindness she had ever shown his queen, which occasioned his bitter sorrow at her detention by the foe; it was the dread that the cruel wrath of Edward would indeed condemn her to death for the active part she had taken in his coronation; the conviction, so agonizing to a mind like his, that he had no power to rescue and avenge; the fearful foreboding that thus would all his faithful friends fall from him—this, only this, would be the reward of all who served and loved him; and even while still, with undaunted firmness, cheering the spirits of his adherents, speaking hope to them, his own inward soul was tortured with doubts as to the wisdom of his resistance, lingering regrets for the fate of those of his friends already lost to him, and painful fears for the final doom of those who yet remained.
It was in such moments of despondency that remorse, too, ever gained dominion, and heightened his inward struggles. Robert's hand was not framed for blood; his whole soul revolted from the bitter remembrance of that fatal act of passion which had stained his first rising. He would have given worlds, if he had had them, to have recalled that deed. Busy fancy represented a hundred ways of punishing treachery other than that which his fury had adopted; and this remembrance ever[Pg 162] increased the anguish with which he regarded the fate of his friends. His lot was indeed as yet one of unexampled suffering, borne by heroism as great as unequalled but the lustre of the latter too frequently dazzles the mind, and prevents the full meed of glory being obtained. His heroism is known to all, his sufferings to but a few; but perhaps it was the latter yet more than the former which gave to Scotland the glory and honor she acquired in his reign. Heroism is scarce separable from ambition, but to mere ambition, the voice of suffering is seldom heard. Heroism dazzles the crowd, suffering purifies the man. If Robert the Bruce were ambitious, the passion in him assumed a nobler and better form; yet we can scarcely call that ambition which sought but the delivery of Scotland from chains, but the regaining an ancient heritage, and sought no more. It was patriotism hallowed by suffering, purified by adversity; patriotism the noblest, purest which ever entered the heart of man.
King Robert and his handful of followers not only reached their trysting-place themselves, but were joined by the queen, and many of her female companions and their attendant warriors, ere Lord James of Douglas returned; three of his companions had straggled in, one by one, with various accounts, but none so satisfactory as the king desired, and he believed with justice, that Douglas lingered to bring, if not satisfactory (for that, alas! could not be) yet accurate intelligence. If aught could have comforted Agnes in these moments of agonized suspense, it would have been not alone the redoubled affection of her Nigel, but the soothing kindness, the love and sympathy of a father, which was lavished on her by King Robert; nay, each of those rude warriors softened in address and tone, as they looked on and spoke to that fair, fragile being, whom they feared now stood alone. She did not weep when other eyes than those of Nigel, or the Lady Campbell, or the gentle Isoline were on her, but that deadly pallor, that quivering lip, and heavy eye spoke all that she endured.
A large cavern, divided by Nature into many compartments, was now the temporary shelter of the king and his friends. It was situated at the base of Ben-Cruchan, which, though at the entrance of the territories of Lorn, was now comparatively secure, the foe imagining the Bruce still amidst the mountains of Aberdeenshire.[Pg 163]
The evening meal was spread; a huge fire blazing in the stony cavity removed all appearance of damp or discomfort, and shed a warm, ruddy light on the groups within. It was a rude home for the King of Scotland and his court, yet neither murmuring nor despondency was marked on the bold brows of the warriors, or the gentler and paler features of their faithful companions; their frames, indeed, showed the effect of wandering and anxiety; many an eye which had been bright was sunken, many a blooming cheek was paled; but the lip yet smiled, the voice had yet its gleesome tones to soothe and cheer their warrior friends; the eager wish to prepare the couch and dress the simple meal, to perform those many little offices of love and kindness so peculiarly a woman's, and engaged in with a zest, a skill which was intuitive, for there had been a time, and one not far distant, when those high-born females little dreamed such household deeds would be their occupation.
Brightly and beautifully shone forth conjugal and filial love in those wandering hours; the wife, the child, the sister bound themselves yet closer to the warrior husband, father, brother, which claimed them his. Yet sweet, most sweet as were those acts of love, there were anxious and loving hearts which felt that soon, too soon, they must part from them, they must persuade those gentle ones to accede to a temporary separation—they could not, they would not expose them to the snows and killing frosts of a Scottish winter.
Anxiety, deep anxiety was on the heart of King Robert, becoming more painful with each glance he fixed on Agnes, who was sitting apart with Nigel, her aching head resting on his shoulder, but he strove to return the caresses of his daughter, to repay with fond smiles the exertions of his wife. Sir Niel Campbell (who, after many painful trials, had rejoined the king) and others strove to disperse the silently gathering gloom by jest and song, till the cavern walls re-echoed with their soldier mirth. Harshly and mournfully it fell on the ear and heart of the maiden of Buchan, but she would not have it stilled.
"No, no; do thou speak to me, Nigel, and I shall only list to thee. Why should the noble efforts of these brave men—for I know even to them mirth is now an effort—be chilled and checked, because my sick heart beats not in unison? Oh, when will Lord James return?"
Nigel sought to soothe, to speak hope, but though his words[Pg 164] fell like balm on the bleeding heart he held to his, it was the rich melody of their voice, not the matter of their meaning.
The hour of rest was fast approaching, when the well-known signal was heard without, and the young Lord Douglas, with his two companions, were hastily and eagerly admitted within the cave. Their looks denoted great fatigue, and the eager eyes which scanned their countenances read little to hope, yet much, much, alas! to fear.
"Thou hast so far succeeded as to obtain the intelligence we need," was the king's instant greeting, as he released his favorite young follower from his embrace; "that I can read, but further, I fear me, thou hast little to communicate which we shall love to hear."
"My tidings are ill indeed, your highness; aggravated and most undreamed-of ill. But, perchance," and the young man hesitated, for his eye caught the pallid face of Agnes, who had irresistibly drawn closer to the circle about the king, and fixed her eyes on him with an expression almost wild in its agony, "perchance they had better first meet your grace's private ear."
"No, no!" reiterated Agnes, springing forward, and clinging convulsively to his arm. "It is only me thou fearest, I know; I know thou wouldst spare me, but do not, do not. I can bear all, every thing, save this horrible suspense; speak out, let me but know all, and then I can teach my soul to bear it. Oh, do not hesitate, do not pause; in mercy, tell me—oh, tell me all!"
Thus adjured, but feeling most painfully the suffering his tale would produce, Douglas struggled with his own emotion, and repeated all the information he had obtained. Guardedly as he spoke, evidently as he endeavored to prepare the mind of Agnes, and thus soften its woe, his tale was yet such as to harrow up the hearts of all his hearers, how much more the frail and gentle being to whom it more immediately related; yet she stood calm, pale, indeed, and quivering, but with a desperate effort conquering the weakness of her nature, and bearing that deep woe as the daughter of her mother, the betrothed of Nigel Bruce.
The young lord's information was simply this. On nearing the hunting-lodge, which was his first object, he found it very nearly deserted, but a few stragglers, amounting perhaps to[Pg 165] fifty in number of the followers of Buchan, remaining behind, with orders to follow their master to Dunkeld without delay. Mingling with these as a countryman of the more northern counties, eager to obtain every species of intelligence respecting the movements of the English and the hunted Bruce, whom he pretended to condemn and vilify after the fashion of the Anglo-Scots, and feeling perfectly secure not only in the disguise he had assumed, but in the peculiar accent and intonation of the north-country peasant, which he could assume at pleasure, he made himself a welcome guest, and with scarcely any trouble received much of the information he desired. He was told of the first capture and rescue of the Countess of Buchan; that it was through one of the men left for dead on the scene of the skirmish the earl had received such exact information concerning the movements and intended destination of the Bruce; that immediately on receiving this intelligence he had gathered all his force, amounting to five hundred men, and dividing them into different bands, sent skilful guides with each, and was thus enabled to surround the lodge, and command five different avenues of the forest, without interruption or discovery. He learned, too, that a stormy interview had taken place between the earl, his wife, and son, the particulars of which, however, had not transpired; that the earl's rage had been terrific when he found the night passed, and the Bruce had not fallen into the snare laid for him; and he had sworn a fearful oath, that if the countess would not betray him into his power, her son should die; that both mother and son had stood this awful trial without shrinking; that no word either to betray their king or implore life and mercy had been wrung from them. Incensed beyond all measure, Buchan had sent on the countess with a numerous guard, his men believed, either to Dunkeld or Perth, in both of which towns there was a strong garrison of English, and lingered yet another day and night in the hope of dragging some intelligence from the lips of Alan, or persuading him into acting the spy upon the actions and movements of the Bruce. He succeeded in neither; and the men continued to state, with shuddering horror, which even their rude natures could not suppress, that they believed the son had actually fallen a victim to his father's rage—that he had actually been murdered. Numerous reports to that effect had been circulated on all sides, and though they had watched[Pg 166] narrowly, they had seen nothing to contradict it. The body of the unfortunate boy had been cast into a deep well, heaps of rubbish flung over it, and the well built up. This they knew as a positive certainty, for they had seen it.
Douglas heard this tale with an intensity of horror, of loathing, which at first deprived him almost of every other feeling; but when he could withdraw himself from the horrible idea, a species of disbelief took possession of him. It was impossible such utter depravity, such fearful insensibility to the claims of nature could exist in the breast of any man; it was a tale forged to inflict fresh agony on the mother's heart, and he determined on discovering, if possible, the truth. He pretended entirely to disbelieve it; declared it was not possible; that the earl had practised on their credulity, and would laugh at them afterwards; and contrived so well, that three or four declared he should be convinced with his own eyes, and set about pulling down the slight brickwork which covered the well. This was what Douglas wanted, and he eagerly lent them a helping hand.
A body there was indeed, in form and in clothing so exactly that of the unhappy Alan, that, even though the face was so marred it could not be recognized, the young earl could doubt no longer; the young, the brave, the beautiful, and true, had fallen a victim to his own patriot loyalty, and by a father's hand. The deep suffering this certainly occasioned was regarded by his companions as sulkiness for having been proved wrong in his judgment; they jeered and laughed at him accordingly, and harshly as these sounds reverberated in his heart, they were welcome, as enabling him still more easily to continue his disguise.
He accompanied them to Dunkeld, and found the earl had proceeded with his wife as prisoner to the castle of Stirling, there to deliver her over to the Earl of Hereford, through whom to be sent on to Edward. Determined on seeing her, if possible, Douglas resolved on daring the danger, and venturing even to the very stronghold of his foes. The horror which this unnatural act of the earl had excited in the minds of his men, he found had extended even over those in Dunkeld, and through them he learned that, directly on reaching the town, the earl had sought the countess, brutally communicated the death of her son, and placed in her hands the raven curls as[Pg 167] all which remained of him, some of which were dabbled in blood; that she had remained apparently unmoved while in his presence, but the moment he left her had sunk into a succession of the most fearful fainting fits, in one of which she had been removed to Stirling.
Withdrawing himself from his companions, under pretence of returning to his home in the north, having, he said, loitered too long, Douglas concealed himself for some days in the abbey of Scone, the holy inmates of which still retained their loyalty and patriotism, notwithstanding their revered abbot, unable to remain longer inactive, had donned the warrior's dress, and departed to join and fight with his king. Assuming the cowl and robes of one of the lay brothers, and removing the red wig and beard he had adopted with his former costume, the young lord took the staff in his hand, and with difficulty bringing his hasty pace to a level with the sober step and grave demeanor of a reverend monk, reached Stirling just as the cavalcade, with the litter intended for the captive countess, had assembled before the castle gate. Agitated almost beyond the power of control, Douglas made his way through the gathering crowds, and stood unquestioned close beside the litter. He did not wait long. Respectfully supported by the Earl of Hereford himself, the Countess of Buchan, with a firm, unfaltering step, approached the litter. The hood was thrown back, and Douglas could read the effects of withering agony on the marble stillness of those beautiful features, though to all else they spoke but firm and calm resolve; there was not a vestige of color on cheek or lip or brow; and though her figure was as commanding, as majestic as heretofore, there was a fearful attenuation about it, speaking volumes to Lord James's heart. Hereford placed her in the litter, and with a respectful salutation turned away to give some necessary orders to his men. Bold in his disguise, Douglas bent over the countess, and spoke in a low, feigned voice those words of comfort and of peace suited to his assumed character; but feigned as it was, the countess recognized him on that instant; a convulsive shudder passed through her every limb, contracting her features with very agony.
"My child—my Alan!" she whispered, harrowing his very soul beneath that voice's thrilling woe. "Douglas, hast thou heard?—yes, yes; I can read it in thine awe-struck face.[Pg 168] This, this is all I have left of him," and she partly drew from her bosom the clustering ringlets he recognized at once; "yet, wherefore should I mourn him: he is happy. Bid his memory be honored among ye; and oh, tell the sovereign for whom he fell, better a death like this than treachery and shame."
She had paused as fearing observation, but perceiving the attention of all more fixed on the glittering cavalcade than on herself, she placed one of those glossy curls in the young earl's hand, and continued—
"Give this to my poor Agnes, with her mother's blessing, and bid her take comfort, bid her not weep and mourn for me. A prison, even death is preferable now to life, for she is cared for. I trust her to Sir Nigel's love; I know that he will tend her as a brother till a happier hour makes her all his own. Commend me to my sovereign, and tell him, might I choose my path again, despite its anguish, 'twould be that which I have trod. And now farewell, young lord, I bless thee for this meeting."
"Dominus vobiscum mea filia, et vale," responded the supposed monk, in a loud voice, for he had only time to assure the countess by a look of deep sympathy of his willingness to execute her simplest wish, and hide the ringlet in his bosom, ere Hereford turned towards him, with a gaze of stern inquiry. Ably concealing alike his emotion and the expression of his countenance, Douglas evaded discovery, and even obtained permission to follow the litter to the environs of the town. He did so, but the countess addressed him not again; and it was with a heart-sinking despondency he had turned to the mountains, when the cavalcade disappeared from his view. He retained his monkish garb till he entered the mountain district, where he fell in with his two companions, and they proceeded, as we have seen, to the quarters of their king.
A pause of horror followed his narrative, told more forcibly and briefly by the lips of Douglas than through the cooler medium of the historian's pen. Stunned, overwhelmed, as if incapable of movement or speech, though sense remained, Agnes stood insensible, even to the voice of Nigel, whose soothing accents strove to whisper peace; but when Douglas placed in her cold hand the raven curls she knew so well, when tenderly yet earnestly he repeated her mother's words, the poor girl[Pg 169] repeatedly pressed the hair to her parched lips, and laid it in her bosom; and then perceiving the sad and anxious face of her beloved, she passed her hand hurriedly over her brow, and burying her head on his breast, sense was preserved by an agony of tears.
It was long, long ere this aggravated wretchedness was calmed, though the love of many, the devotion of one were ever round her to strengthen and console. Sympathy, the most heartfelt, reigned in every bosom. Of the many misfortunes which had befallen this patriot band, this seemed, if not really the severest, more fraught with horror than any which had come before; the youth, the gallant bearing, the endearing qualities of the heir of Buchan stood forth with vivid clearness in the memories of all, and there were times when they felt it could not be, it was too fearful; and then again, the too certain evidence of the fact, witnessed as it had been by one of such tried truth as James of Douglas, brought conviction too clearly home, and the sternest warrior, who would have faced his own captivity and death unmoved, felt no shame in the dimness which gathered in his eye for the fearful fate of the murdered boy.
In King Robert's breast these emotions obtained yet more powerful dominion; again did remorse distract him, and there were moments of darkness, when his spirit questioned the justice of the Creator. Why was not his crime visited on his own head? Why did the guiltless and unstained fall thus around him, and he remain unharmed? and it needed all the eloquence of Nigel, the pious reasonings of the Abbot of Scone, to convince him that, dark and inscrutable as the decrees of Omnipotence sometimes seemed, in his case they were as clear as the wisdom from which they sprung. By chastisement he was purified; he was not yet fit to receive the reward of the righteous waiting on death. Destined to be the savior of his unhappy country, the remorse which bowed down his naturally haughty spirit was more acceptable in the sight of his God, more beneficial to his own soul, than the one act of devotedness included in a brave man's death. Robert struggled with his despondency, with his soul's deep grief, known as it was but to himself, his confessor, and his young brother; he felt its encouragement would unnerve him for his destined task. Other imperative matters now pressed round him, and by presenting[Pg 170] fresh and increased danger, roused his energies once more to their wonted action.
The winter had set in with unexampled severity, overwhelming snow-storms filled up the rude paths of the mountains, till egress and ingress appeared impossible. The Earl of Athol himself, who had been the inseparable companion of the Bruce in all his wanderings, now spoke of retiring, and passing the winter within stone walls, urging his sovereign with earnest eloquence to take refuge in Ireland till the spring, when they would reassemble under arms, and perhaps take the tyrant Edward once more by surprise.
Bruce knew the veteran nobleman too well to attribute this advice to any motive save deep interest in his safety. He saw, too, that it was utterly impossible for them to remain as they then were, without serious evils alike to his female and male companions; the common soldiers, steady and firm as they still continued in loyalty, yet were continually dispersing, promising to reassemble in the spring, but declaring that it was useless to think of struggling against the English, when the very elements were at war against them. With a sad foreboding, Robert saw, and communicated to his devoted wife the necessity of their separation. He felt that it was right and best, and therefore he resisted all her tearful entreaties still to linger by his side; her child was suffering, for her tender years could not bear up against the cold and the want of proper nourishment, and yet even that claim seemed less to the mother's heart than the vision of her husband enduring increase of hardship alone. Her acquiescence was indeed at length obtained, but dimmed by many very bitter tears.
A hasty consultation with his few remaining friends speedily decided the Bruce's plans. The castle of Kildrummie, a strong fortress situated at the head of the Don, in Aberdeenshire, yet remained to him, and thither, under the escort of his brother Nigel and three hundred men, the king determined to send his wife and child, and the other ladies of his court. Himself, his three brothers, Edward, Alexander, and Thomas, Douglas, Sir Niel Campbell, and his remaining two hundred followers, resolved on cautiously making their way southward across Loch Lomond, and proceed thence to the coast of Ireland, there to await the spring. In pursuance of this plan, Sir Niel Campbell was dispatched without delay to conciliate Angus, Lord of[Pg 171] the Isles, to whom Cantire then belonged. Knowing he was unfriendly to his near neighbors, the Lords of Lorn, the king trusted he should find in him a powerful ally. To appeal yet more strongly to the chivalric hospitality which characterized the chieftain, Sir Niel consented that his wife and daughter Isoline should accompany him. Lady Campbell had too lately undergone the grief and anxiety attendant on the supposed loss of her husband to consent to another parting. Even the king, her brother, sought not to dissuade her; but all persuasions to induce Agnes to accompany them were vain; bitter as the pang of separation was to her already aching heart—for Lady Campbell and Isoline were both most dear to her—she steadily resolved to remain with the queen and her attendants, and thus share the fate of her betrothed.
"Did not my mother commend me to thy care? Did she not bid thee tend me as a brother until happier hours, and shall I seek other guardianship than thine, my Nigel?" were her whispered words, and Nigel could not answer them. So pure, so unselfish was her love, that though he felt his happiness would have departed with her presence, could he have commanded words he would have implored her to seek the hospitality of the Lord of the Isles as a securer home than Kildrummie. Those forebodings already alluded to had returned with darker weight from the hour his separation from his brother was resolved on. He evinced no sign of his inward thoughts, he uttered no word of dissent, for the trust reposed in him by his sovereign was indeed as precious as it was honorable; but there was a mournful expression on his beautiful countenance—when unobserved, it would rest upon his brother—that Agnes could not define, although it filled her spirit with incomprehensible alarm, and urged her yet more to abide by his side.
The dreaded day arrived at length, and agonized was indeed that parting. Cheerfully the king looked, and hopefully he spoke, but it had no power to calm the whelming tide of sorrow in which his wife clung to his embrace. Again and again she returned to that faithful heart which bore so fondly, so forbearingly, with all her faults and weaknesses; and Margory, although she could not comprehend the extent of sorrow experienced by her mother, wept bitterly at her side. Nor were they the only sufferers. Some indeed were fortunate enough to have relatives amid the band which accompanied them to[Pg 172] Kildrummie, but by far the greater number clung to the necks of brothers, fathers, husbands, whose faithful and loving companions they had been so long—clung to them and wept, as if a long dim vista of sorrow and separation stretched before them. Danger, indeed, was around them, and the very fact of their being thus compelled to divide, appeared to heighten the perils, and tacitly acknowledge them as too great to be endured.
With pain and difficulty the iron-souled warriors at length tore themselves from the embrace of those they held most dear. The knights and their followers had closed round the litters, and commenced their march. No clarion sent its shrill blast on the mountain echoes, no inspiring drum reverberated through the glens—all was mournfully still; as the rudest soldier revered the grief he beheld, and shrunk from disturbing it by a sound.
King Robert stood alone, on the spot where Sir Christopher Seaton had borne from him his wife and child. His eyes still watched their litter; his thoughts still lingered with them alone; full of affection, anxiety, sadness, they were engrossed, but not defined. He was aroused by the sudden appearance of his younger brother, who, bareheaded, threw himself at his feet, and, in a voice strangely husky, murmured—
"My sovereign, my brother, bless me, oh, bless me, ere we part!"
"My blessing—the blessing of one they deem accursed; and to thee, good, noble, stainless as thou art! Nigel, Nigel, do not mock me thus," answered the king, bitterness struggling with the deepest melancholy, as he laid his hand, which strangely trembled, on the young man's lowered head. "Alas! bring I not evil and misery and death on all who love me? What, what may my blessing bring to thee?"
"Joy, bright joy in the hour of mirth and comfort; oh, untold-of comfort in the time of sorrow, imprisonment, death! My brother, my brother, oh, refuse it not; thou knowest not, thou canst not know how Nigel loves thee!"
Robert gazed at him till every thought, every feeling was lost in the sudden sensation of dread lest ill should come to him; it had overtaken one as fair in promise, as beloved, and yet younger; and oh, if death selected the best, the loveliest, the dearest, would it next fall on him? The thought was such[Pg 173] absolute agony, that the previous suffering of that hour was lost before it.
"Bless thee—oh, may God in heaven bless thee, my brave, my noble Nigel!" he exclaimed, with a burst of emotion, perfectly appalling in one generally so controlled, and raising him, he strained him convulsively to his heart. "Yet why should we part?" he added, after a long pause; "why did I fix on thee for this office—are there not others? Nigel, Nigel, say but the word, and thou shalt rest with me: danger, privation, exile we have borne, and may still share together. Why should I send thee from me, dearest, most beloved of all who call me brother?"
"Why?" answered Nigel, raising his glistening eyes from his brother's shoulder, "why, dear Robert? because thine eye could read my heart and trust it; because thou knewest I would watch over those who bear thy name, who are dear to thee, even as thy noble self. Oh, do not repent thee of thy choice; 'tis hard to bear alone danger, so long encountered hand in hand, yet as thou hast decided let it be. Thy words have soothed my yearning heart, which craved to list thy voice once more; and now then, my noble liege and brother, farewell. Think on thy Nigel's words; even when misery is round thee thou shalt, thou shalt be blessed. Think on them, my Robert, and then when joy and liberty and conquest crown thee, oh, forget not Nigel."
He threw his arms around him, imprinted a fervent kiss on his cheek, and was out of sight ere the king by sign or word could arrest his progress. One hasty bound forward Robert indeed made, but a dimness stole over his sight, and for one brief minute he sunk down on the grass, and when he lifted his head again, there were burning tears upon his cheek.