It would be useless to linger on the trial of Nigel Bruce, in itself a mockery of justice, as were all those which had proceeded, and all that followed it. The native nobility of Scotland were no subjects of the King of England; they owed him homage, perchance, for lands held in England, but on flocking to the standard of the Bruce these had at once been voluntarily forfeited, and they fought but as Scottish men determined to throw off the yoke of a tyrant whose arms had overrun a land to which
e had no claim. They fought for the freedom of a country, for their own liberty, and therefore were no traitors; but these facts availed not with the ruthless sovereign, to whom opposition was treason. The mockery of justice proceeded, it gave a deeper impression, a graver solemnity to their execution, and therefore for not one of his prisoners was the ceremony dispensed with. Sir Christopher Seaton had been conveyed to the Tower, with his wife, under pretence of there waiting till his wounds were cured, to abide his trial, and in that awful hour Sir Nigel stood alone. Yet he was undaunted, for he feared not death even at the hangman's hand; his spirit was at peace, for he was innocent of sin; unbowed, for he was no traitor—he was a patriot warrior still. Pale he was, indeed, ashy pale, but it told a tale of intense bodily anguish. They had put him to the torture, to force from his lips the place of his brother's retreat, that being the only pretence on which the rage of Edward and the malice of Berwick could rest for the infliction of their cruelty. They could drag naught from his lips; they could not crush that exalted soul, or compel it to utter more than a faint, scarcely articulate groan, as proof that he suffered, that the beautiful frame was well-nigh shattered unto death. And now he stood upright, unshrinking; and there were hearts amid those peers inwardly grieving at their fell task, gazing on him with unfeigned admiration; while others gloried that another obstacle to their sovereign's schemes of ambition would be removed, finding, perchance, in his youth, beauty, and noble bearing, from their contrast with themselves, but fresh incentives to the doom of death, and determining, even as they sate and scowled on him, to aggravate the bitter[Pg 299]ness of that doom with all the ignominy that cruelty could devise.

He had listened in stern silence to the indictment, and evinced no sign of emotion even when, in the virulence of some witnesses against him, the most degrading epithets were lavished on himself, his family, and friends. Only once had his eye flashed fire and his cheek burned, and his right hand unconsciously sought where his weapon should have hung, when his noble brother was termed a ribald assassin, an excommunicated murderer; but quickly he checked that natural emotion, and remained collected as before. He was silent till the usual question was asked, "If he had any thing to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him?" and then he made a step forward, looked boldly and sternly around him, and spoke, in a rich, musical voice, the following brief, though emphatic words:

"Ye ask me if I could say aught why sentence of death should not be pronounced. Nobles of England, in denying the charge of treason with which ye have indicted me, I have said enough. Before ye, aye, before your sovereign, I have done nothing to merit death, save that death which a conqueror bestows on his captive, when he deems him too powerful to live. The death of a traitor I protest against; for to the King of England I am no subject, and in consequence no traitor! I have but done that which every true and honorable man must justify, and in justifying respect. I have sought with my whole heart the liberty of my country, the interest of my lawful sovereign, and will die asserting the honor and justice of my cause, even as I have lived. I plead not for mercy, for were it offered, on condition of doing homage unto Edward, I would refuse it, and choose death; protesting to the last that Robert Bruce, and he alone, is rightful king of Scotland. My lords, in condemning me to death as a captive taken in war, ye may be justified by the law of battles, I dispute not the justice of your doom; but an ye sentence me as traitor, I do deny the charge, and say my condemnation is unjust and foul, and ye are perjured in its utterance. I have said. Now let your work proceed."

He folded his arms on his breast, and awaited in unbroken silence his doom. A brief pause had followed his words. The Earl of Gloucester, who, from his rank and near connection[Pg 300] with the king, occupied one of the seats of honor at the upper end of the large hall, and had, during the trial, vainly sought to catch the prisoner's eye, now reclined back on his seat, his brow resting on his hand, his features completely concealed by the dark drapery of his cloak. In that position he remained, not only during the pause, but while the fatal sentence was pronounced.

"By the laws of your country, and the sentence of your peers," so it ran, "you, Nigel Bruce, by manifold acts of rebellion, disaffection, and raising up arms against your lawful king, Edward, the sovereign of England and Scotland, and all the realms, castles, and lordships thereto pertaining, are proved guilty of high treason and lèse majesté, and are thereby condemned to be divested of all symbols of nobility and knighthood, which you have disgraced; to be dragged on a hurdle to the common gibbet, and there hung by the neck till you are dead; your head to be cut off; your body quartered and exposed at the principal towns as a warning to the disaffected and the traitorous of all ranks in either nation, and this is to be done at whatsoever time the good pleasure of our sovereign lord the king may please to appoint. God save King Edward, and so perish all his foes!"

Not a muscle of the prisoner's face had moved during the utterance of this awful sentence. He had glanced fearlessly around him to the last, his eye resting on the figure of the Earl of Gloucester with an expression of pitying commiseration for a moment, as if he felt for him, for his deep regret in his country's shame, infinitely more than for himself. Proudly erect he held himself, as they led him in solemn pomp from the great hall of the castle, across the court to the dungeons of the condemned, gazing calmly and unflinchingly on the axe, which carried with its edge towards him proclaimed him condemned, though his doom was more ignominious than the axe bestowed. There was a time when he had shrunk from the anticipated agony of a degradation so complete as this—but not now; his spirit was already lifted up above the honors and humiliations of earth. But one dream of this world remained—one sad, sweet dream clung to his heart, and bound it with silver chains below. Where was that gentle being? He fondly hoped she had sought the friends of his boyhood, as he had implored her, should they be parted; he strove to realize comfort in the[Pg 301] thought they would protect and save her the agony of a final parting; but he strove in vain. One wild yearning possessed him, to gaze upon her face, to fold her to his heart once, but once again: it was the last lingering remnant of mortality; he had not another thought of life but this, and this grew stronger as its hope seemed vain. But there was one near to give him comfort, when he expected it not.

Wrapped so closely in his dark, shrouding mantle that naught but the drooping feather of his cap could be distinguished, the Earl of Gloucester drew near the prisoner, and as he paused, ere the gates and bars of the prison entrance could be drawn back, whispered hurriedly yet emphatically—

"A loved one is safe and shall be so. Would to God I could do more!"

Suppressing with extreme difficulty a start of relief and surprise, the young nobleman glanced once on Gloucester's face, pressed his hands together, and answered, in the same tone—

"God in heaven bless thee! I would see her once, only once more, if it can be without danger to her; it is life's last link, I cannot snap it—parted thus." They hurried him through the entrance with the last word lingering on his lips, and before Gloucester could make even a sign of reply.

Early in the evening of the same day, King Edward was reclining on his couch, in the chamber we have before described, and, surrounded by some few of his favorite noblemen, appeared so animated by a new cause of excitement as to be almost unconscious of the internal pains which even at that moment were more than usually intense. His courtiers looked on unconcernedly while, literally shaking with disease and weakness, he coolly and deliberately traced those letters which gave a base and ignominious death to one of the best, the noblest, loveliest spirits that ever walked the earth, and signed the doom of misery and madness to another; and yet no avenging hand stretched forth between him and his victim, no pang was on his heart to bid him pause, be merciful, and spare. Oh, what would this earth be were it all in all, and what were life if ending in the grave? Faith, thou art the crystal key opening to the spirit the glorious vision of immortality, bidding the trusting heart, when sick and weary of the dark deeds and ruthless spoilers of this lovely earth, rest on thy downy wings, and seek for peace and comfort there.[Pg 302]

"Who waits?" demanded the king, as his pen ceased in its task.

"Sir Stephen Fitzjohn, my liege, sent by the Earl of Berwick with the warrant, for which he waits."

"He need wait no longer then, for it is there. Two hours before noon the traitor dies; we give him grace till then, that our good subjects of Berwick may take warning by his fate, and our bird in the cage witness the end of the gallant so devoted to her cause. Bid the knight begone, my Lord of Arundel; he hath too long waited our pleasure. Ha! whom have we here? who craves admittance thus loudly?" he added, observing, as the earl lifted the hangings to depart, some bustle in the ante-room. "Who is it so boldly demanding speech with us?"

"Her Highness the Princess Joan, Countess of Gloucester, please you, my liege," replied the chamberlain; "she will not take denial."

"Is it so hard a thing for a daughter to gain admittance to a father, even though he be a sovereign?" interrupted the princess, who, attended only by a single page bearing her train, advanced within the chamber, her firm and graceful deportment causing the lords to fall back on either side, and give her passage, though the expression of their monarch's countenance denoted the visit was unwelcome.

"Humbly and earnestly I do beseech your grace's pardon for this over-bold intrusion," she said, bending one knee before him; "but indeed my business could not be delayed. My liege and father, grant me but a few brief minutes. Oh, for the sake of one that loved us both, the sainted one now gone to heaven, for the memory of whom thou didst once bless me with fonder love than thou gavest to my sisters, because my features bore her stamp, my king, my father, pardon me and let me speak!"

"Speak on," muttered the king, passing his hand over his features, and turning slightly from her, if there were emotion, to conceal it. "Thou hast, in truth, been over-bold, yet as thou art here, speak on. What wouldst thou?"

"A boon, a mighty boon, most gracious father; one only thou canst grant, one that in former years thou wouldst have loved me for the asking, and blessed me by fulfilment," she said, as she continued to kneel; and by her beseeching voice[Pg 303] and visible emotion effectually confining the attention of the courtiers, now assembled in a knot at the farther end of the apartment, and preventing their noticing the deportment of the page who had accompanied her; he was leaning against a marble pillar which supported the canopy raised over the king's couch, his head bent on his breast, the short, thick curls which fell over his forehead concealing his features; his hands, too, crossed on his breast, convulsively clenched the sleeves of his doublet, as if to restrain the trembling which, had any one been sufficiently near, or even imagined him worthy of a distant glance, must have been observable pervading his whole frame.

"A boon," repeated the king, as the princess paused, almost breathless with her own emotion; "a mighty boon! What can the Countess of Gloucester have to ask of me, that it moves her thus? Are we grown so terrible that even our own children tremble ere they speak? What is this mighty boon? we grant not without hearing."

"'Tis the boon of life, my liege, of life thou canst bestow. Oh, while in this world thou rulest, viceregent of the King of kings on high, combining like Him justice and mercy, in the government of his creatures, oh! like, Him, let mercy predominate over justice; deprive not of life, in the bloom, the loveliness of youth! Be merciful, my father, oh, be merciful! forgive as thou wouldst be forgiven—grant me the life I crave!"

Urged on by emotion, the princess had scarcely heard the suppressed interjection of the king which her first words had occasioned, and she scarcely saw the withering sternness which gathered on his brow.

"Thou hast in truth learnt oratory, most sapient daughter," he said, bitterly; "thou pleadest well and flowingly, yet thou hast said not for whom thou bearest this marvellous interest—it can scarce be for a traitor? Methinks the enemies of Edward should be even such unto his children."

"Yet 'tis for one of these mistaken men I plead, most gracious sovereign," resumed Joan, intimidated not by his sarcasm. "Oh, my father, the conqueror's triumph consists not in the number of rebellious heads that fall before him—not in the blood that overflows his way; magnanimity, mercy, will conquer yet more than his victorious sword. Traitor as he seem, have mercy on Nigel Bruce; oh, give—"

"Mercy on a Bruce! May the thunder of heaven blast me[Pg 304] when I show it!" burst furiously from Edward's lips, as he started upon his couch and gazed on his suppliant child with eyes that seemed absolutely to blaze in wrath. "Mercy on a branch of that house which has dared defy me, dared to insult my power, trample on my authority, upraised the standard of rebellion, and cost me the lives of thousands of my faithful subjects! Mercy on him, the daring traitor, who, even in his chains, has flung redoubled insult and treason into our very teeth! Mercy—may the God of heaven deny me all mercy when I show it unto him!"

"Oh, no, no, my father! My father, in mercy speak not such terrible words!" implored the princess, clinging to his robe. "Call not the wrath of heaven on thy head; think of his youth, the temptations that have beset him, the difficult task to remain faithful when all other of his house turned astray. Mistaken as he hath been, as he is, have mercy. Compel him to prove, to feel, to acknowledge thou art not the tyrant he hath been taught to deem thee; exile, imprisonment, all—any thing, but death. Oh, do not turn from me; be thyself, the good, the magnanimous Edward of former days, have mercy on thy foe!"

"I tell thee, never! by every saint in heaven, I tell thee, never!" shouted the king. "I will hear no more; begone, lest I deem my own child part and parcel of the treasons formed against me. Trouble me not with these vain prayers. I will not pardon, I have sworn it; begone, and learn thy station better than to plead for traitors. Thy husband braved me once; beware, lest in these pleadings I hear his voice again. I tell him and thee that ere to-morrow's noon be passed the soul of Nigel Bruce shall stand in judgment; not another day, not another hour he lives to blast me with the memory of his treason. The warrant hath been signed, and is on its way to Berwick, to give his body to the hangman and his soul to Satan—his death is sealed."

"Oh, no, no, no!" shrieked a voice of sudden anguish, startling all who heard, and even Edward, by its piteous tones, and the form of a page suddenly fell prostrate before the monarch. "Mercy, mercy! for the love of God, have mercy!" he struggled to articulate, but there was no sound save a long and piercing shriek, and the boy lay senseless on the ground.

"Ha! by St. George, beardest thou me with traitors in my very palace, before my very eyes?" exclaimed the angry mon[Pg 305]arch, as his astonished courtiers gathered round. "Put him in ward; away with him, I say!"

"Pardon me, your highness, but this is needless," interposed the princess, with a calm majesty, that subdued even the irritation of her father, and undauntedly waving back the courtiers, although perfectly sensible of the imminent danger in which she was placed. "If there be blame, let it be visited on me; this poor child has been ill and weakly from many causes, terrified, almost maddened, by sounds, and sights of blood. I deemed him perfectly recovered, or he had not attended me here. I pray your grace permit his removal to my apartments."

The king laid a heavy hand on his daughter's arm as she stood beside him, and fixed a gaze on her face that would have terrified any less noble spirit into a betrayal of the truth; but firm in her own integrity, in her own generous purpose, she calmly and inquiringly returned his gaze.

"Go to, thou art a noble wench, though an over-bold and presuming one," he said, in a much mollified tone, for there was that in the dauntless behavior of his daughter which found an echo in his heart even now, deadened as it was to aught of gentle feeling, and he was glad of this interruption to entreaties which, resolved not to grant, had lashed him into fury, while her presence made him feel strangely ashamed. "Do as thou wilt with thine own attendants; but be advised, tempt not thine own safety again; thou hast tried us sore with thy ill-advised entreaties, but we forgive thee, on condition they are never again renewed. Speak not, we charge thee. What ho! Sir Edmund Stanley," he called aloud, and the chamberlain appeared at the summons. "Here, let this boy be carefully raised and borne according to the pleasure of his mistress. See, too, that the Countess of Gloucester be conducted with due respect to her apartments. Begone!" he added, sternly, as the eyes of Joan still seemed to beseech mercy; "I will hear no more—the traitor dies!"