The shades of advancing night had already appeared to have enwrapped the earth some hours, when Nigel Bruce was star[Pg 306]tled from an uneasy slumber by the creaking sounds of bolts and bars announcing the entrance of some one within the dungeon. The name of his beloved, his devoted Agnes, trembled on his lips, but fearful of betraying her to unfriendly ears, ho checked himself, and started up, exclaiming, "Who comes?" No answer was vouchsafed, but the dim light of a lamp, placed by the intrud
r on the floor, disclosed a figure wrapped from head to foot in the shrouding mantle of the time, not tall, but appearing a stout muscular person, banishing on the instant Nigel's scarcely-formed hope that it was the only one he longed to see.

"What wouldst thou?" he said, after a brief pause. "Doth Edward practise midnight murder? Speak, who art thou?"

"Midnight murder, thou boasting fool; I love thee not well enough to cheat the hangman of his prey," replied a harsh and grating voice, which, even without the removal of the cloak, would have revealed to Nigel's astonished ears the Earl of Buchan. "Ha! I have startled thee—thou didst not know the deadly enemy of thy accursed race!"

"I know thee now, my Lord of Buchan," replied the young man, calmly; "yet know I not wherefore thou art here, save to triumph over the fallen fortunes of thy foe; if so, scorn on—I care not. A few brief hours, and all of earth and earthly feeling is at rest."

"To triumph—scorn! I had scarce travelled for petty satisfaction such as that, when to-morrow sees thee in the hangman's hands, the scorn of thousands! Hath Buchan no other work with thee, thinkest thou? dost thou affirm thou knowest naught for which he hath good cause to seek thee?"

"Earl of Buchan, I dare affirm it," answered Nigel, proudly; "I know of naught to call for words or tones as these, save, perchance, that the love and deep respect in which I hold thine injured countess, my friendship for thy murdered son, hath widened yet more the breach between thy house and mine—it may be so; yet deem not, cruel as thou art, I will deny feelings in which I glory, at thy bidding. An thou comest to reproach me with these things, rail on, they affect me as little as thy scorn."

"Hadst thou said love for her they call my daughter, thou hadst been nearer the mark," retorted the earl, fury rapidly[Pg 307] gaining possession of heart and voice; "but thou art too wise, too politic for that."

"Aye," retorted Nigel, after a fearful struggle with himself, "aye, thou mayest well add love for Agnes of Buchan, as well as friendship for her brother. Thinkest thou I would deny it—hide it? little dost thou know its thrilling, its inspiring power; little canst thou know how I glory in it, cherish, linger on it still. But wherefore speak thus to thee, thou man of wickedness and blood. I love thy pure and spotless child, rejoice that thou didst so desert, so utterly neglect her, that thou couldst no more leave a shadow on her innocent heart than a cloud upon her way. I love her, glory in that love, and what is it to thee?"

"What is it to me? that a child of the house of Comyn dare hold commune with a Bruce; that thou hast dared to love a daughter of my house, aye, to retain her by thy side a willing mistress, when all others of her sex forsook thee—what is it to me? Did not to-morrow give thee to a traitor's doom, thy blood should answer thee; but as it is, villain and slave, give her to me—where is her hiding-place? speak, or the torture shall wring it from thee."

"Thinkest thou such threats will in aught avail thee?" calmly replied Nigel. "Thou knowest not the Bruce. Agnes is no longer a Comyn, no longer a subject to thy guardianship. The voice of God, the rites at the altar's foot, have broken every link, save that which binds her to her husband. She is mine, before God and man is mine—mine own faithful and lawful wife!"

"Thou liest, false villain!" furiously retorted Buchan. "The church shall undo these bonds, shall give her back to the father she has thus insulted. She shall repent, repent with tears of blood, her desertion of her race. Canst thou protect her in death, thou fool—canst thou still cherish and save her, thinkest thou, when the hangman hath done his work?"

"Aye, even then she will be cherished, loved for Nigel's sake, and for her own; there will be faithful friends around her to protect her from thee still, tyrant! Thou canst not break the bonds that bind us; thou hast done no father's part. Forsaken and forgotten, thy children owe thee no duty, no obedience; thou canst bring forward no plea to persecute thy child. In life and in death she is mine, mine alone; the power and[Pg 308] authority thou hast spurned so long can no longer be assumed; the love, the obedience thou didst never heed, nay, trampled on, hath been transferred to one who glories in them both. She is in safety—slay, torture as thou wilt, I tell thee no more." Fettered, unarmed, firm, undauntedly erect, stood Nigel Bruce, gazing with curling lip and flashing eyes upon his foe. The foam had gathered on the earl's lip, his hand, clenching his sword, had trembled with passion as Nigel spoke, He sought to suppress that rage, to remember a public execution would revenge him infinitely more than a blow of his sword, but he had been too long unused to control; lashed into ungovernable fury by the demeanor of Nigel, even more than by his words, the sword flashed from its scabbard, was raised, and fell—but not upon his foe, for the Earl of Gloucester suddenly stood between them.

"Art thou mad, or tired of life, my Lord of Buchan?" he said. "Knowest thou not thou art amenable to the law, an thou thus deprivest justice of her victim? Shame, shame, my lord; I deemed thee not a midnight murderer."

"Darest thou so speak to me?" replied Buchan, fiercely; "by every fiend in hell, thou shalt answer this! Begone, and meddle not with that which concerneth thee nothing."

"It doth concern me, proud earl," replied Gloucester, standing immediately before Nigel, whose emotion at observing the page by whom he was accompanied, though momentary, must otherwise have been observed. "The person of the prisoner is sacred to the laws of his country, the mandate of his sovereign; on thy life thou darest not injure him—thou knowest that thou darest not. Do thou begone, ere I summon those who, at the mere mention of assault on one condemned, will keep thee in ward till thou canst wreak thy vengeance on naught but clay; begone, I say!"

"I will not," sullenly answered the earl, unwillingly conscious of the truth of his words; "I will not, till he hath answered me. Once more," he added, turning to Nigel with a demoniac scowl, "where is she whom thou hast dared to call thy wife? answer me, or as there is a hell beneath us, the torture shall wring it from thee!"

"In safety, where thine arm shall never reach her," haughtily answered the young nobleman. "Torture! what wilt thou torture—the senseless clay? Hence—I defy thee! Death will[Pg 309] protect me from thy lawless power; death will set his seal upon me ere we meet again."

The earl muttered a deep and terrible oath, and then he strode away, coming in such violent contact against the slight and almost paralyzed form of Gloucester's page as he stood in the doorway, as nearly to throw him to the ground. Nigel sprung forward, but was held back with a grasp of iron by the Earl of Gloucester, nor did he relinquish his hold till Buchan had passed through the doorway, till the heavy hinges had firmly closed again, and the step of the departing earl had entirely faded in distance.

"Now, then, we are safe," he said; "thank heaven!" but his words were scarcely heard, for the page had bounded within the extended arms of Nigel, had clung so closely to his heart, he could feel nothing, see nothing, save that slender form; could hear nothing but those deep, agonized sobs, which are so terrible when unaccompanied by the relief of tears. For a while Nigel could not speak—he could not utter aught of comfort, for he felt it not; that moment was the bitterness of death.

"Torture! did he not speak of torture? will he not come again?" were the words that at length fell, shudderingly, from the lips of Agnes. "Nigel, Nigel, if it must be, give me up; he cannot inflict aught more of misery now."

"Fear not, lady; he dare not," hastily rejoined Gloucester. "The torture dare not be administered without consent of Edward, and that now cannot be obtained; he will not have sufficient—" time, he was going to say, but checked himself; for the agonized look of Agnes told him his meaning was more than sufficiently understood. "Nigel," he added, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder, "Nigel, my noble, gallant friend—for so I will call thee, though I sat in judgment on thee, aye, and tacitly acquiesced in thy sentence—shrink not, oh, shrink not now! I saw not a quiver on thy lip, a pallor on thy cheek, nay, nor faltering in thy step, when they read a doom at which I have marked the bravest blench; oh, let not, that noble spirit fail thee now!"

"Gloucester, it shall not!" he said, with suddenly regained firmness, as supporting Agnes with his right arm he convulsively wrung the hand of his friend with the other. "It was but the sight of this beloved one, the thought—no matter, it is[Pg 310] over. Agnes, my beloved, my own, oh, look on me; speak, tell me all that hath befallen thee since they tore thee from me, and filled my soul with darker dread for thee than for myself. To see thee with this noble earl is enough to know how heavy a burden of gratitude I owe him, which thou, sweetest, must discharge. Yet speak to me, beloved; tell me all, all."

Emulating his calmness, remembering even at that moment her promise not to unman him in the moment of trial by vain repinings, Agnes complied with his request. Her tale was frequently interrupted by those terrible sobs, which seemed to threaten annihilation; but Nigel could gather from it so much of tenderness and care on the part of the princess, that the deepest gratitude filled his heart, and spoke in his impassioned words.

"Tell her, oh, tell her, if the prayers of the dying can in aught avail her, the blessedness of heaven shall be hers even upon earth!" he exclaimed, gazing up in the earl's face with eyes that spoke his soul. "Oh, I knew her not, when in former years I did but return her kindness with silence and reserve; I saw in her little more than the daughter of Edward. Tell her, on my knees I beseech her pardon for that wrong; in my last prayers I shall breathe her name."

"And wherefore didst thou go with her?" he continued, on Agnes narrating the scene between the princess and the king. "Alas! my gentle one, hadst thou not endured enough, that thou wouldst harrow up thy soul by hearing the confirmation of my doom from the tyrant's own ruthless lips—didst dream of pardon? dearest, no, thou couldst not."

"Nigel, Nigel, I did, even at that moment, though they told me thou wert condemned, that nothing could save thee; though the princess besought me almost on her knees to spare myself this useless trial, I would not listen to her. I would not believe that all was hopeless; I dreamed still, still of pardon, that Edward would listen to his noble child, would forgive, and I thought, even if she failed, I would so plead he must have mercy, he would listen to me and grant my prayer. I did dream of pardon, but it was vain, vain! Nigel, Nigel, why did my voice fail, my eye grow dim? I might have won thy pardon yet."

"Beloved, thou couldst not," he answered, mournfully. "Mine own sweet Agnes, take comfort, 'tis but a brief fare[Pg 311]well; we shall meet where war and blood and death can never enter more."

"I know it, Oh, I know it," she sobbed; "but to part thus, to lose thee, and by such a death, oh, it is horrible, most horrible!"

"Nay, look not on it thus, beloved; there is no shame even in this death, if there be no shame in him who dies."

"Shame!" she repeated; "couldst think I could couple aught of shame with thee, my own? even this dark fate is noble when borne by such as thee."

Nigel held her closer to his heart, and for his sole answer pressed a quivering kiss upon her cheek. Gloucester, who had been in earnest commune with the sentinel without the door, now returned, and informed him that the soldier, who was well known to him and who much disliked his present watch, had willingly consented that the page (whom Gloucester had represented as a former attendant of Sir Nigel's, though now transferred to his service) should remain with his former master, on condition that the earl would come for him before the priests and others who were to attend him to the scaffold entered the dungeon, as this departure from the regular prison discipline, shown as it was to one against whom the king was unusually irritated, might cost him his head. Gloucester had promised faithfully, and he offered them the melancholy option of parting now, or a few sad hours hence.

"Let me, do let me stay; Nigel, my husband, send me not from thee now!" exclaimed Agnes, sinking at his feet and clasping his knees. "I will not weep, nor moan, nor in aught afflict thee. Nigel, dearest Nigel, I will not leave thee now."

"But is it wise, is it well, my best beloved? think, if in the deep anguish of to-morrow thy disguise be penetrated, thy sex discovered, and thy cruel father claim thee, dragging thee even from the protection of the princess—oh, the bitterness of death were doubled then! Thou thinkest but of me, mine own, but thy safety, thy future peace is all now left for me."

"Safety, peace—oh, do not, do not mock me, Nigel—where are they for poor Agnes, save in her husband's grave? What is life now, that thou shouldst seek to guard it? no, no, I will abide by thee, thou shalt not send me hence."

"But to-morrow, lady, to-morrow," interposed Gloucester, with deep commiseration. "I would not, from any selfish[Pg 312] fear, shorten by one minute the few sad hours ye may yet pass together, but bethink ye, I dare not promise to shield thee from the horrors of to-morrow, for I cannot. Fearful scenes and sounds may pass before thee; thou mayest come in contact with men from whom thou wilt shrink in horror, and though thine own safety be of little worth, remember the betrayal of thy sex and rank may hurl down the royal vengeance on the head of thy protectress, daughter of Edward though she be. Canst thou be firm—wilt thou, canst thou await the morrow?"

"Yes," answered Agnes, the wildness of her former accents subsiding into almost solemnity; "the safety of thy noble countess shall not be hazarded through me. Leave me with my husband, add but this last mercy to the many thou hast showered on me, and the blessing of God will rest on thee and thy noble wife forever."

She raised his hand to her lips, and Gloucester, much affected, placed hers in her husband's, and wrung them convulsively together. "We shall meet again," was all he trusted his voice to utter, and departed.

The hours waned, each one finding no change in the position of those loving ones. The arm of Agnes twined around the neck of her beloved, her brow leaned against his bosom, her left hand clasped his right, and his left arm, though fettered, could yet fold that slender waist, could yet draw her closer to him, with an almost unconscious pressure; his lips repeatedly pressed that pale brow, which only moved from its position to lift up her eyes at his entreaty in his face, and he would look on those features, lovely still, despite their attenuation and deep sorrow, gaze at them with an expression that, spite of his words of consoling love, betrayed that the dream of earth yet lingered; he could not close his eyes on her without a thrill of agony, sharper than the pang of death. But the enthusiast and the patriot spoke not at that hour only of himself, or that dearer self, the only being he had loved. He spoke of his country, aye, and less deplored the chains which bound her then, than with that prophetic spirit sometimes granted to the departing, dilated on her future glory. He conjured Agnes, for his sake, to struggle on and live; to seek his brother and tell him that, save herself, Nigel's last thought, last prayer was his; that standing on the brink of eternity, the mists of the[Pg 313] present had rolled away, he saw but the future—Scotland free, and Robert her beloved and mighty king.

"Bid him not mourn for Nigel," he said; "bid him not waver from his glorious purpose, because so many of his loved and noble friends must fall—their blood is their country's ransom; tell him, had I a hundred lives, I would have laid them down for him and for my country as gladly, as unhesitatingly as the one I now resign; and tell him, dearest, how I loved him to the last, how the recollection of his last farewell, his fervent blessing lingered with me to the end, giving me strength to strive for him and die, as becomes his brother; tell him I glory in my death—it has no shame, no terror, for it is for him and Scotland. Wilt thou remember all this, sweet love? wilt thou speak to him these words?"

"Trust me I will, all, all that thou hast said; they are written here," placing her hand on her heart, "here, and they will not leave me, even if all else fail."

"And thou wilt say to him, mine own, that Nigel besought his love, his tenderness for thee," he continued, losing the enthusiasm of the patriot in the tenderness of the husband; "tell him I look to him in part to discharge the debt of love, of gratitude I owe to thee; to guard thee, cherish thee as his own child. Alas! alas! I speak as if thou must reach him, and yet, beset with danger, misery, as thou art, how may this be?"

"Fear not for me; it shall be, my husband. I will do thy bidding, I will seek my king," she said, for when comfort failed for him, she sought to give it. "Hast forgotten Dermid's words? He would be near me when I needed him, and he will be, my beloved, I doubt him not."

"Could I but think so, could I but know that he would be near to shield thee, oh, life's last care would be at an end, said Nigel, earnestly; and then for some time that silence, more eloquent, more fraught with feeling in such an hour than the most impassioned words, fell on them both. When again he spoke, it was on a yet more holy theme; the thoughts, the dreams of heaven, which from boyhood had been his, now found vent in words and tones, which thrilled to the inmost spirit of his listener, and lingered there, when all other sense had fled. He had lived in an era of darkness. Revelation in its doctrines belonged to the priests alone; faith and obedience demanded by the voice of man alone, were all permitted to the[Pg 314] laity, and spirits like Nigel's consequently formed a natural religion, in which they lived and breathed, hallowing the rites which they practised, giving scope and glory to their faith. He pictured the world, on whose threshold he now stood, pictured it, not with a bold unhallowed hand, but as the completion, the consummation of all those dim whisperings of joy, and hope, and wisdom, which had engrossed him below—the perfection of that beauty, that loveliness, in the material and immaterial, he had yearned for in vain on earth.

"And this world of incomparable unshadowed loveliness awaits me," he said, the superstition of the age mingling for the moment with thoughts which seemed to mark him a century beyond his compeers; "purchased by that single moment of suffering called death. It is mine, my beloved, and shall be thine; and oh, when we meet there, how trivial will seem the dark woes and boding cares of earth! I have told thee the vision of my vigil, Agnes, my beloved; again I have seen that blessed spirit, aye, and there was no more sadness on his pale brow, naught, naught of earth—spiritualized, etherealized. He hovered over my sleep, and with a smile beckoned me to the glorious world he inhabits; he seemed to call me, to await me, and then the shrouding clouds on which he lay closed thicker and thicker round him, till naught but his celestial features beamed on me. Agnes, dearest, best, think of me thus, as blessed eternally, unchangeably, as awaiting thee to share that blessedness, not as one lost to thee, beloved; and peace, aye, joy e'en yet shall smile for thee."

"Nigel, Nigel, are there such things for the desolate, the lone?" murmured Agnes, raising her pale brow and looking despairingly in his face. "Oh, I will think on thee, picture thee in thy thrice-glorified home, but it will be with all of mortal clinging to me still, and the wild yearnings to come to thee will banish all of peace. Speak not such words to thy poor weak Agnes, my beloved. I will struggle on to bear thy message to my sovereign; there lies my path when thou art gone, darkness envelops it when that goal is gained—I have no future now, save that which gives me back to thee."

He could not answer, and then again there was silence, broken only by the low voice of prayer. They knelt together on the cold stones, he raised her cold hands with his in supplication; he prayed for mercy, pardon for himself, for comfort,[Pg 315] strength for her; he prayed for his country and her king, her chained and sorrowing sons, and the soft, liquid star of morning, gloaming forth through heavy masses of murky clouds directly on them as they knelt, appeared an angel's answer. The dawn broke; bluer and bluer became the small and heavily-barred casement, clearer and clearer grew the damp walls of the dungeons, and morning, in its sunshine and gladness, laughed along the earth. Closer and closer did Agnes cling to that noble heart, but she spoke no word. "He tarries long—merciful heaven, grant he be not detained too late!" she heard her husband murmur, as to himself, as time waned and Gloucester came not, and she guessed his thoughts.

"I care not," she answered, in a voice so hollow he shuddered; "I will go with thee, even to the scaffold."

But Gloucester, true to his promise, came at length; he was evidently anxious and disturbed, and a few hurried words told how the Earl of Berwick had detained him in idle converse, as if determined to prevent any private interview with the prisoner; even now the officers and priests were advancing to the dungeons, their steps already reverberated through the passages, and struck on the heart of Agnes as a bolt of ice. "I had much, much I wished to say, but even had I time, what boots it now? Nigel, worthy brother of him I so dearly loved, aye, even now would die to serve, fear not for the treasure thou leavest to my care; as there is a God above us, I will guard her as my sister! They come—farewell, thou noble heart, thou wilt leave many a foe to mourn thee!" The voice of the earl quivered with emotion. Nigel convulsively pressed his extended hand, and then he folded Agnes in his arms; he kissed her lips, her brow, her cheek, he parted those clustering curls to look again and yet again upon her face—pale, rigid as sculptured marble. She uttered no sound, she made no movement, but consciousness had not departed; the words of Gloucester on the previous night rung in her ears, demanding control, and mechanically she let her arms unloose their convulsive grasp of Nigel, and permitted the earl gently to lead her to the door, but ere it opened, she turned again to look on Nigel. He stood, his hands clasped in that convulsive pressure of agony, his every feature working with the mighty effort at control with the last struggle of the mortal shell. With one faint yet thrilling cry she bounded back, she threw[Pg 316] herself upon his swelling bosom, her lips met his in one last lingering kiss, and Gloucester tore her from his arms. They passed the threshold, another minute and the officers, and guard, and priest stood within the dungeon, and a harsh, rude voice bade the confessor haste to shrive the prisoner, for the hour of execution was at hand.

Bearing the slight form of the supposed page in his arms, Gloucester hastily threaded the passages leading from the dungeon to the postern by which he had intended to depart. His plan had been to rejoin his attendants and turn his back upon the city of Berwick ere the execution could take place; a plan which, from his detention, he already found was futile. The postern was closed and secured, and he was compelled to retrace his steps to a gate he had wished most particularly to avoid, knowing that it opened on a part of the court which, from its commanding a view of the scaffold, he justly feared would be crowded. He had paused but to speak one word of encouragement to Agnes, who, with a calmness appalling from the rigidity of feature which accompanied it, now stood at his side; he bade her only hold by his cloak, and he hoped speedily to lead her to a place of safety. She heard him and made a sign of obedience. They passed the gate unquestioned, traversed an inner court, and made for the great entrance of the castle; there, unhappily, their progress was impeded. The scaffold, by order of Edward, had been erected on the summit of a small green ascent exactly opposite the prison of the Countess of Buchan, and extending in a direct line about half a quarter of a mile to the right of the castle gates, which had been flung wide open, that all the inhabitants of Berwick might witness the death of a traitor. Already the courts and every vacant space was crowded. A sea of human heads was alone visible, nay, the very buttresses and some pinnacles of the castle, which admitted any footing, although of the most precarious kind, had been appropriated. The youth, the extraordinary beauty, and daring conduct of the prisoner had excited an unusual sensation in the town, and the desire to mark how such a spirit would meet his fate became irresistibly intense. Already it seemed as if there could be no space for more, yet numbers were still pouring in, not only most completely frustrating the intentions of the Earl of Gloucester, but forcing him, by the pressure of multitudes, with them towards the scaffold.[Pg 317] In vain he struggled to free himself a passage; in vain he haughtily declared his rank and bade the presumptuous serfs give way. Some, indeed, fell back, but uselessly, for the crowds behind pushed on those before, and there was no retreating, no possible means of escaping from that sight of horror which Gloucester had designed so completely to avoid. In the agony of disappointment, not a little mixed with terror as to its effects, he looked on his companion. There was not a particle of change upon her countenance; lips, cheek, brow, were indeed bloodless as marble, and as coldly still; her eyes were fascinated on the scaffold, and they moved not, quivered not. Even when the figure of an aged minstrel, in the garb of Scotland, suddenly stood between them and the dread object of their gaze, their expression changed not; she placed her hand in his, she spoke his name to her conductor, but it was as if a statue was suddenly endowed with voice and motion, so cold was the touch of that hand, so sepulchral was that voice; she motioned him aside with a gesture that compelled obedience, and again she looked upon the scaffold. The earl welcomed the old man gladly, for the tale of Agnes had already prepared him to receive him, and to rely on his care to convey her back to Scotland. Engrossed with his anxiety for her, and whenever that permitted him, speaking earnestly to the old man, Gloucester remained wholly unconscious of the close vicinity of one he was at that moment most desirous to avoid.

The Earl of Buchan, in the moment of ungovernable rage, had indeed flung himself on horseback and galloped from the castle the preceding night, intending to seek the king, and petition that the execution might be deferred till the torture had dragged the retreat of Agnes from Nigel's lips. The cool air of night, however, had had the effect of so far dissipating the fumes of passion, as to convince him that it would be well-nigh impossible to reach Carlisle, obtain an interview with Edward at such an unseasonable hour, and return to Berwick in sufficient time for the execution of his diabolical scheme. He let the reins fall on his horse's neck, to ponder, and finally made up his mind it was better to let things take their course, and the sentence of the prisoner proceed without interruption; a determination hastened by the thought that should he die under the torture, all the ignominy and misery of a public execution would be eluded. The night was very dark and misty, the[Pg 318] road in some parts passing through, woods and morasses, and the earl, too much engrossed with his own dark thoughts to attend to his path, lost the track and wandered round and round, instead of going forward. This heightened not the amiability of his previous mood; but until dawn his efforts to retrace his steps or even discover where he was were useless. The morning, however, enabled him to reach Berwick, which he did just as the crowds were pouring into the castle-yard, and the heavy toll of the bell announced the commencement of that fatal tragedy. He hastily dismounted and mingled with the populace, they bore him onward through another postern to that by which the other crowds had impelled Gloucester. Finding the space before them already occupied, these two human streams, of course, met and conjoined in the centre; and the two earls stood side by side. Gloucester, as we have said, wholly unconscious of Buchan's vicinity, and Buchan watching his anxious and sorrowful looks with the satisfaction of a fiend, revelling in his being thus hemmed in on all sides, and compelled to witness the execution of his friend. He watched him closely as he spoke with the minstrel, but tried in vain to distinguish what they said. He looked on the page too, and with some degree of wonder, though he believed it only mortal terror which made him look thus, natural in so young a child; but afterwards that look was only too fatally recalled.

Sleepless and sad had been that long night to another inmate of Berwick Castle, as well as to Nigel and his Agnes. It was not till the dawn had broken that the Countess of Buchan had sunk into a deep though troubled slumber, for it was not till then the confused sounds of the workmen employed in erecting the scaffold had ceased. She knew not for whom it was upraised, what noble friend and gallant patriot would there be sacrificed. She would not, could not believe it was for Nigel; for when his name arose in her thoughts, it was shudderingly repelled, and with him came the thought of her child—where, oh, where was she?—what would be her fate? The tolling of the bell awoke her from the brief trance of utter unconsciousness into which, from exhaustion, she had fallen. She glanced once beneath her. The crowds, the executioner at his post, the guard already round the scaffold, too truly told the hour was at hand, and though her heart turned sick with apprehen[Pg 319]sion, and she felt as if to know the worst were preferable to the hour of suspense, she could not look again, and she would have sought the inner chamber, and endeavor to close both ears and eyes to all that was passing without, when the Earl of Berwick suddenly entered, and harshly commanded her to stir not from the cage.

"It is your sovereign's will, madam, that you witness the fate of the traitor so daring in your cause," he said, as with a stern grasp he forced her to the grating and retained his hold upon her arm; "that you may behold in his deserved fate the type of that which will at length befall the yet blacker traitor of his name. It is fitting so loyal a patriot as thyself should look on a patriot's fate, and profit thereby."

"Aye, learn how a patriot can die—how, when his life may no more benefit his country and his kin, he may serve them in his death," calmly and proudly she answered. "It is well; perchance, when my turn cometh, I may thank thy master for the lesson now rudely forced upon me. The hour will come when the blood that he now so unjustly sheds shall shriek aloud for vengeance. On me let him work his will—I fear him not."

"Be silent, minion! I listen not to thy foul treason," said the earl, hoarse with suppressed passion at the little effect his sovereign's mandate produced, when he had hoped to have enforced it midst sobs and tears; and she was silent, for her eye had caught one face amidst the crowd that fascinated its gaze, and sent back the blood, which had seemed to stagnate when the idea that it was indeed Nigel now about to suffer had been thus rudely thrust upon her—sent it with such sudden revulsion through its varied channels, that it was only with a desperate struggle she retained her outward calmness, and then she stood, to the eye of Berwick, proud, dignified, collected, seemingly so cold, that he doubted whether aught of feeling could remain, or marvelled if the mandate of Edward had indeed power to inflict aught of pain. But within—oh, the veriest tyrant must have shuddered, could he have known the torture there; she saw, she recognized her child; she read naught but madness in that chiselled gaze; she saw at a glance there was no escaping from beholding, to the dreadful end, the fate of her beloved; before, behind, on every side, the crowds pressed round, yet from the slightly elevated position of the scaffold, failing[Pg 320] to conceal it from her gaze. The Earl of Gloucester she perceived close at her side, as if protecting her; but if indeed she was under his care, how came she on such a spot, at such a time?—did he know her sex, or only looked on her as a favored page of Nigel's, and as such protected? Yet would not the anguish of that hour betray her not alone to him, but to that dark and cruel man whom she also marked beside her, and who, did he once know her, would demand the right of a father, to give her to his care? and oh, how would that right be exercised! would the murderer of his son, his heir, have pity on a daughter? But it would be a vain effort to picture the deep anguish of that mother's heart, as in that dread moment she looked upon her child, knowing, feeling her might of grief, as if it had been her own; well-nigh suffocated with the wild yearning to fold her to her maternal bosom, to bid her weep there, to seek to comfort, to soothe, by mingling her tears with hers, to protect, to hide her misery from all save her mother's eye—to feel this till every pulse throbbed as to threaten her with death, and yet to breathe no word, to give no sign that such things were, lest she should endanger that precious one yet more. She dared not breathe one question of the many crowding on her heart, she could but gaze and feel. She had thought, when, they told her that her boy was dead, that she had caused his death, there was little more of misery fate could weave, but at that moment even Alan was forgotten. It was her own wretchedness she had had then to bear, for he was at rest; but now it was the anguish of that dearer self, her sole remaining child—and oh, a mother's heart can better bear its individual woes than those that crash a daughter to the earth.

A sudden rush amidst the crowd, where a movement could take place, the heavy roll of muffled drums, and the yet deeper, more wailing toll of the funeral bell, announced that the prisoner had left the dungeon, and irresistibly the gaze of the countess turned from her child to seek him; perchance it was well, for the preservation of her composure, that the intervening crowd prevented her beholding him till he stood upon the scaffold, for hardly could she have borne unmoved the sight of that noble and gallant form—beloved alike as the friend of her son, the betrothed of her daughter, the brother of her king—degraded of all insignia of rank, chained to the[Pg 321] hurdle, and dragged as the commonest, the vilest criminal, exposed to the mocking gaze of thousands, to the place of execution. She saw him not thus, and therefore she knew not wherefore the features of Agnes had become yet more rigid, bore yet more the semblance of chiselled marble. He stood at length upon the scaffold, as calmly majestic in his bearing as if he had borne no insult, suffered no indignity. His beautiful hair had been arranged with care on either side his face, and still fell in its long, rich curls, about his throat; and so beautiful, so holy was the expression of his perfect features, that the assembled crowds hushed their very breath in admiration and in awe; it seemed as if the heaven, on whose threshold he stood, had already fixed its impress on his brow. Every eye was upon him, and all perceived that holy calmness was for one brief minute disturbed; but none, save three of those who marked it, knew or even guessed the cause. The countess had watched his glance, as at first composedly it had wandered over the multitude beneath and around him, and she saw it rest on that one face, which, in its sculptured misery, stood alone amidst thousands, and she alone perceived the start of agony that sight occasioned, but speedily even that emotion passed; he looked from that loved face up to the heaven on which his hopes were fixed, in whose care for her he trusted—and that look was prayer. She saw him as he knelt in prayer, undisturbed by the clang of instruments still kept up around him; she saw him rise, and then a deadly sickness crept over her every limb, a thick mist obscured her sight, sense seemed on the point of deserting her, when it was recalled by a sound of horror—a shriek so wild, so long, so thrilling, the rudest spirit midst those multitudes shrunk back appalled, and crossed themselves in terror. On one ear it fell with a sense of agony almost equal to that from whence it came; the mother recognized the voice, and feeling, sight, hearing, as by an electric spell, returned. She looked forth again, and though her eye caught the noble form of Nigel Bruce yet quivering in the air, she shrunk not, she sickened not, for its gaze sought her child; she had disappeared from the place she had occupied. She saw the Earl of Gloucester making a rapid way through the dispersing crowds, a sudden gust blew aside his wrapping-cloak, the face of her child was exposed to her view, there was a look of death upon her brow; and if the Earl of Berwick had[Pg 322] lingered to note whether indeed this scene of horror would pass unnoticed, unfelt by his prisoner, he was gratified at length, for Isabella of Buchan lay senseless on her prison floor.