"And she is in safety, Gilbert?" inquired the Princess Joan, the evening of the day following the execution, lifting her eyes, swimming in tears, to her husband's face. They were sitting alone in their private apartments, secured from all intruders by a page stationed in the ante-room; and the earl had been relating some important particulars of the preceding day.
"I trust in heaven she is, and some miles ere now on her road to Scotland," was his answer. "I fear for no
hing save for the beautiful mind that fragile shell contains; alas! my Joan, I fear me that has gone forever!"
"Better, oh better, then, that fainting-fit had indeed been death," she said, "that the thread of life had snapped than twisted thus in madness. Yet thou sayest her purpose seemed firm, her intellect clear, in her intense desire to reach Scotland. Would this be, thinkest thou, were they disordered?"
"I think yes; for hadst thou seen, as I, the expression of countenance, the unearthly calmness with which this desire was enforced, the constant, though unconscious, repetition of words as these, 'to the king, to the king, my path lies there, he bade me seek him; perchance he will be there to meet me,' thou too wouldst feel that, when that goal is gained, her husband's message given, sense must fail or life itself depart. But once for a few brief minutes I saw that calmness partly fail, and I indulged in one faint hope she would be relieved by tears. She saw old Dermid gaze on her and weep; she clung to his neck, her features worked convulsively, and her voice was choked and broken, as she said, We must not tarry, Dermid, we must not wait to weep and moan; I must seek King Robert while I can. There is a fire on my brain and heart, which will soon scorch up all memory but one; I must not wait till it has reached his words, and burned them up too—oh,[Pg 323] let us on at once;' but the old man's kindly words had not the effect I hoped, she only shook her head, and then, as if the horrible recollection of the past flashed back, a convulsive shuddering passed through her frame, and when she raised her face from her hand its marble rigidity had returned."
"Alas! alas! poor sufferer," exclaimed the princess, in heartfelt sorrow; "I fear indeed, if such things be, there is little hope of reason. I would thou hadst conveyed her here, perchance the soothing and sympathy of one of her own sex had averted this evil."
"T doubt, my kind Joan," replied her husband; "thy words had such beneficial power before, because hope had still possession of her breast, she hoped to the very last, aye, even when she so madly went with thee to Edward; now that is over; hope is crushed, when despair has risen. Thou couldst not have soothed; it would have been but wringing thy too kind heart, and exposing her to other and heightened evils." The princess looked up inquiringly. "Knowest thou not Buchan hath discovered that his daughter remained with Nigel Bruce, as his engaged bride, at Kildrummie, and is even now seeking her retreat, vowing she shall repent with tears of blood her connection with a Bruce?"
"I did not indeed; how came this?"
"How, I know not, save that it was reported Buchan had left the court, on a mission to the convent where the Countess of Carrick and her attendants are immured, and in all probability learnt this important fact from them. I only know that at the instant I entered the prisoner's dungeon, Buchan was demanding, at the sword's point, the place of her retreat, incited to the deadliest fury at Nigel's daring avowal that Agnes was his wife."
"Merciful heaven! and Agnes, what did she?"
"I know not, for I dared not, absolutely dared not look upon her face. Her husband's self-control saved her, for he stood and answered as calmly and collectedly as if indeed she were in the safety he declared; her father brushed by, nay, well-nigh stumbled over her, as he furiously quitted the dungeon, glared full at her, but knew her not. But I dared not again bring her here, it was in too close vicinity with the king and her cruel father, for her present state of mind must have betrayed every disguise."[Pg 324]
"And thinkest thou he could have the heart to injure her, separated as she is by death from the husband of her love?"
"Aye, persecute her as he hath his wife and son. Joan, I would rather lose my own right hand than that unhappy girl should fall into her father's power. Confinement, indeed, though it would add but little real misery to her present lot, yet I feel that with her present wild yearnings to rejoin the Bruce, to fulfil to the very utmost her husband's will, it would increase tenfold the darkness round her; the very dread of her father would unhinge the last remaining link of intellect."
Joan shuddered. "God in mercy forefend such ill!" she said, fervently; "I would I could have seen her once again, for she has strangely twined herself about my heart; but thou hast judged wisely, my Gilbert, her safety is too precious to be thus idly risked; and this old man, canst thou so trust him—will he guide her tenderly and well?"
"Aye, I would stake my life upon his truth; he is the seer and minstrel of the house of Bruce, and that would be all-sufficient to guarantee his unwavering fidelity and skill. He has wandered on foot from Scotland, to look on his beloved master once again; to watch over, as a guardian spirit, the fate of that master's devoted wife, and he will do this, I doubt not, and discover Carrick's place of retreat, were it at the utmost boundaries of the earth. I only dread pursuit."
"Pursuit! and by whom?"
"By her father. Men said he was close beside me during that horrible hour, though I saw him not; if he observed her, traced to her lips that maddening shriek, it would excite his curiosity quite sufficiently for him to trace my steps, and discovery were then inevitable."
"But did he do this—hast seen him since?"
"No, he has avoided me; but still, for her sake, I fear him. I know not how or when, but there are boding whispers within me that all will not be well. Now I would have news from thee. Is Hereford released?"
"Yes; coupled with the condition that he enters not my father's presence until Easter. He is deeply and justly hurt; but more grieved at the change in his sovereign than angered at the treatment of himself."
"No marvel; for if ever there were a perfect son of chivalry,[Pg 325] one most feelingly alive to its smallest point of honor, it is Humphrey Bohun."
So spoke Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, unconscious that he himself had equal right to a character so exalted; that both Scottish and English historians would emulate each other in handing his name down to posterity, surrounded by that lucid halo of real worth, on which the eye turns again and again to rest for relief from the darker minds and ruder hearts which formed the multitude of the age in which he lived. The duties of friendship were performed in his preservation of the person, and constant and bold defence of the character of the Bruce; the duties of a subject, in dying on the battle-field in service for his king.
The boding prognostics of the Earl of Gloucester were verified ere that day closed. While still in earnest converse with his countess, a messenger came from the king, demanding their instant presence in his closet. The summons was so unusual, that in itself it was alarming, nor did the sight of the Earl of Buchan in close conference with the monarch decrease their fears. As soon as a cessation of his pains permitted the exertion, Buchan had been sent for by the king; the issue of his inquiries after his daughter demanded, and all narrated; his interview with Sir Nigel dwelt upon with all the rancor of hate. Edward had listened without making any observation; a twinkle of his still bright eye, an expression about the lips alone betraying that he not only heard but was forming his own conclusions from the tale.
"And you have no clue, no thought of her retreat?" he asked, at length, abruptly, when the earl ceased.
"Not the very faintest, your grace. Had not that interfering Gloucester come between me and my foe, I had forced it from him at the sharp sword's point."
"Gloucester—humph!" muttered the king. "Yet an so bloody was thy purpose, my good lord, his interference did thee no ill. How was the earl accompanied—was he alone?"
"If I remember rightly, alone, your grace. No, by my faith, there was a page with him!"
"A page—ha! and what manner of man was he?"
"Man! your highness, say rather a puny stripling, with far more of the woman about him than the man."[Pg 326]
"Ha!" again uttered the king; "looked he so weakly—did thy fury permit such keen remark?"
"Not at that time, your highness; but he was, with Gloucester, compelled to witness the execution of this black traitor, and he looked white, statue-like, and uttered a shriek, forsooth, likely to scare back the villain's soul even as it took flight. Gloucester cared for the dainty brat, as if he had been a son of your highness, not a page in his household, for he lifted him up in his arms, and bore him out of the crowd."
"Humph!" said Edward again, in a tone likely to have excited curiosity in any mind less obtuse on such matters than that of the Scottish earl. "And thou sayest," he added, after some few minutes pause, "this daring traitor, so lately a man, would tell thee no more than that thy daughter was his wife, and in safety—out of thy reach?"
Buchan answered in the affirmative.
"And thou hast not the most distant idea where he hath concealed her?"
"None, your highness."
"Then I will tell thee, sir earl; and if thou dost not feel inclined to dash out thine own brains with vexation at letting thy prey so slip out of thy grasp, thou art not the man I took thee for," and Edward fixed his eyes on his startled companion with a glance at once keen and malicious.
"The white and statue-looking page, with more of woman about him than the man, was the wife of this rank villain, Sir Nigel Bruce, and thy daughter, my Lord of Buchan. The Earl of Gloucester may, perchance, tell thee more."
The earl started from his seat with an oath, which the presence of majesty itself could not restrain. The dulness of his brain was dissolved as by a flash of lightning; the ghastly appearance, the maddening shriek, the death-like faint, all of which he had witnessed in Gloucester's supposed page, nay, the very disturbed and anxious look of the earl himself, gave truth and life to Edward's words, and he struck his clenched fist against his brow, and strode up and down the royal closet, in a condition as frantically disturbed as the monarch could possibly have desired; and then, hastily and almost incoherently, besought the king's aid in sifting the matter to the very bottom, and obtaining repossession of his daughter, entreating leave of absence to seek out Gloucester and tax him with the fact.[Pg 327]
Edward, whose fury against the house of Bruce—whether man, woman, or child, noble or serf, belonging to them—had been somewhat soothed by the ignominious execution of Nigel, had felt almost as much amused as angered at the earl's tale, and enjoyed the idea of a man, whom in his inmost heart he most thoroughly despised, having been so completely outwitted, and for the time so foiled. The feud between the Comyn and the Bruce was nothing to him, except where it forwarded his own interests. He had incited Buchan to inquire about his daughter, simply because the occupation would remove that earl out of his way for a short time, and perhaps, if the rumor of her engagement with one of the brothers of the Bruce were true, set another engine at work to discover the place of their concealment. The moment Buchan informed him it was to Nigel she had been engaged, with Nigel last seen, his acute penetration recalled the page who had accompanied the princess when she supplicated mercy, and had he heard no more, would have pointed there for the solution of the mystery. Incensed he was and deeply, at the fraud practised upon him at the Karl and Countess of Gloucester daring to harbor, nay, protect and conceal the wife of a traitor; but his anger was subdued in part by the belief that now it was almost impossible she could escape the wardance of her father, and his vengeance would be more than sufficient to satisfy him; nay, when he recalled the face and the voice, it was so like madness and death, and he was, moreover, so convinced that now her husband was dead she could do him no manner of harm, that he inwardly and almost unconsciously hoped she might eventually escape her father's power, although he composedly promised the earl to exercise his authority, and give him the royal warrant for the search and committal of her person wherever she might be. Anger, that Gloucester and his wife should so have dared his sovereign power, was now the prevailing feeling, and therefore was it he commanded their presence, determined to question them himself, rather than through the still enraged Buchan.
Calmly and collectedly the noble pair received alike the displeasure of their sovereign and the ill-concealed fury of Buchan. They neither denied the charge against them nor equivocated in their motives for their conduct; alarmed they were, indeed, for the unhappy Agnes; but as denial and concealment were[Pg 328] now alike impossible, and could avail her nothing, they boldly, nay, proudly acknowledged that which they had done, and openly rejoiced it had been theirs to give one gleam of comfort to the dying Nigel, by extending protection to his wife.
"And are ye not traitors—bold, presuming traitors—deserving the chastisement of such, bearding me thus in my very palace?" wrathfully exclaimed Edward. "Know ye not both are liable to the charge of treason, aye, treason—and fear ye to brave us thus?"
"My liege, we are no traitors, amenable to no such charge," calmly answered Gloucester; "far, far more truly, faithfully, devotedly your grace's subjects than many of those who had shrunk from an act as this. That in so doing we were likely to incur your royal displeasure, we acknowledge with deep regret and sorrow, and I take it no shame thus on my knee to beseech your highness's indulgence for the fault; but if you deem it worthy of chastisement, we are ready to submit to it, denying, however, all graver charge, than that of failing in proper deference to your grace."
"All other charge! By St. Edward, is not that enough?" answered the king, but in a mollified tone. "And thou, minion, thou whom we deemed the very paragon of integrity and honor, hast thou aught to say? Did not thy lips frame falsehood, and thy bold looks confirm it?"
"My father, my noble father, pardon me that in this I erred," answered Joan, kneeling by his side, and, despite his efforts to prevent it, clasping his hand and covering it with kisses; "yet I spoke no falsehood, uttered naught which was not truth. She was ill and weakly; she was well-nigh maddened from scenes and sounds of blood. I had besought her not to attend me, but a wife's agony could not be restrained, and if we had refused her the protection she so wildly craved, had discovered her person to your highness, would it have availed thee aught? a being young, scarce past her childhood—miserable, maddened well-nigh to death, her life wrapt up in her husband's, which was forfeited to thee."
"The wife of a traitor, the offspring of a traitress, connected on every side with treason, and canst ask if her detention would have availed us aught? Joan, Joan, thy defence is but a weak one," answered the king, sternly, but he called her "Joan," and that simple word thrilled to her heart as the voice of former[Pg 329] years, and her father felt a sudden gush of tears fall on the hand he had not withdrawn, and vainly he struggled against the softening feelings those tears had brought. It was strange that, angered as he really was, the better feelings of Edward should in such a moment have so completely gained the ascendency. Perhaps he was not proof against the contrast before him, presented in the persons of Buchan and Gloucester; the base villainy of the one, the exalted nobility of the other, alike shone forth the clearer from their unusually close contact. In general, Edward was wont to deem these softening emotions foolish weaknesses, which he would banish by shunning the society of all those who could call them forth. Their candid acknowledgment of having deserved his displeasure, and submission to his will, however, so soothed his self-love, his fondness for absolute power, that he permitted them to have vent with but little restraint. Agnes might have been the wife of a traitor, but he was out of Edward's way; the daughter of a traitress, but she was equally powerless; linked with treason, but too much crashed by her own misery to be sensible of aught else. Surely she was too insignificant for him to persevere in wrath, and alienate by unmerited severity yet more the hearts which at such moments he felt he valued, despite his every effort to the contrary.
So powerfully was he worked upon, that had it not been for the ill-restrained fury of Buchan, it was possible the subject would have been in the end peaceably dismissed; but on that earl's reminding him of his royal word, the king commanded Gloucester to deliver up his charge to her rightful guardian, and all the past should be forgiven. The earl quietly and respectfully replied he could not, for he knew not where she was. Wrath gathered on Edward's brow, and Buchan laid his hand on his sword; but neither the royal commands nor Buchan's muttered threats and oaths of vengeance could elicit from Gloucester more than that she had set off to return to Scotland with an aged man, not three hours after the execution had taken place. He had purposely avoided all inquiries as to their intended route, and therefore not any cross-questioning on the part of the king caused him to waver in the smallest point from his original tale, or afforded any evidence that he knew more than he said.
"Get thee to Sir Edward Cunningham, my Lord of Buchan,[Pg 330] and bid him draw up a warrant for the detention and committal of these two persons wherever they may be," the king said, "and away with thee, and a trusty troop, with all speed to Berwick. Make inquiries of all who at that particular hour passed the gates, and be assured thou wilt find some clue. Take men enough to scour the country in all directions; provide them with an exact description of the prisoners they seek, and tarry not, and thou wilt yet gain thy prize; living or dead, we resign all our right over her person to thee, and give thee power, as her father, to do with her what may please thee best. Away with thee, my lord, and heaven speed thee!"
"My liege and father, oh, why hast thou done this?" exclaimed the princess, imploringly, as, with a low obeisance to the king and a gesture of triumph at the Earl of Gloucester, Buchan departed. "Hath she not borne misery enough!"
"Nay, we do but our duty to our subjects in aiding fathers to repress rebellious children," replied the king. "Of a truth, fair dame of Gloucester, thy principles of filial duty seem somewhat as loose and light as those which counselled abetting, protecting, and concealing the partner of a traitor. Wouldst have us refuse Buchan's most fatherly desire? Surely thou wouldst not part him from his child?"
"Forever and forever!" exclaimed the princess, fervently. "Great God in heaven, that such a being should call that monster father, and owe him the duty of a child! But, oh, thou dost but jest, my father; in mercy recall that warrant—expose her not to wretchedness as this!"
"Peace," replied the king, sternly. "As thou valuest thine own and thy husband's liberty and life, breathe not another syllable, speak not another word for her, or double misery shall be her portion. We have shown enough of mercy in demanding no further punishment for that which ye have done, than that for ten days ye remain prisoners in your own apartments. Answer not; we will have no more of this."
The Earl of Buchan, meanwhile, had made no delay in gaining the necessary aids to his plan. Ere two hours passed, he was on his road to Berwick, backed with a stout body of his own retainers, and bearing a commission to the Earl of Berwick to provide him with as many more as he desired. He went first to the hostelry near the outskirts of the town, where he remembered Gloucester had borne the supposed page. There[Pg 331] he obtained much desirable information, an exact description of the dress, features, and appearance of both the page and his companion; of the former, indeed, he recollected all-sufficient, even had the description been less exact. The old minstrel had attracted the attention of many within the hostel, and consequently enabled Buchan to obtain information from various sources, all of which agreed so well that he felt sure of success.
Backed by the warrant of Edward, he went to the civil authorities of the town, obtained four or five technically drawn-up descriptions of the prisoners, and intrusted them to the different officers, who, with bands of fifty men, he commanded to search every nook and corner of the country round Berwick, in various directions. He himself discovering they had passed through the Scotch gate and appeared directing their course in a westerly direction, took with him one hundred men, and followed that track, buoyed up by the hope not only of gaining possession of his daughter, but perhaps of falling in with the retreat even of the detested Bruce, against whom he had solemnly recorded a vow never to let the sword rest in the scabbard till he had revenged the murder of his kinsman, the Red Comyn. Some words caught by a curious listener, passing between the page and minstrel, and eagerly reported to him, convinced him it was Robert Bruce they sought, and urged him to continue the search with threefold vigor.
Slowly and sadly meanwhile had the hours of their weary pilgrimage passed for the poor wanderers, and little did they imagine, as they threaded the most intricate paths of the borders of Scotland, that they were objects of persecution and pursuit. Though the bodily strength of Agnes had well-nigh waned, though the burning cheek and wandering, too brightly flashing eye denoted how fearfully did fever rage internally, she would not pause save when absolutely compelled. She could neither sleep nor eat: her only cry was, "To the king—bring me but to King Robert while I may yet speak!" her only consciousness, that she had a mission to perform, that she was intrusted with a message from the dead; all else was a void, dark, shapeless, in which thought framed no image; mind, not a wish. Insensibility it was not, alas! no, that void was woe, all woe, which folded up heart and brain as with a cloak of fire, scorching up thought, memory, hope—all that could recall the past, vivify the present, or vision forth the future. She[Pg 332] breathed indeed and spoke, and clung to that aged man with all the clinging helplessness of her sex, but scarce could she be said to live; all that was real of life had twined round her husband's soul, and with it fled.
The old man felt not his advanced age, the consciousness of the many dangers hovering on their way; his whole thought was for her, to bring her to the soothing care and protection of the king, and then he cared not how soon his sand run out. When wandering in the districts of Annandale and Carrick, before he had arrived at Berwick, he had learned the secret but most important intelligence that King Robert had passed the winter off the coast of Ireland, and was supposed to be only waiting a favorable opportunity to return to Scotland, and once more upraise his standard. This news had been most religiously and strictly preserved a secret amid the few faithful adherents of the Bruce, who perhaps spoke yet more as they hoped than as a fact well founded.
For some days their way had been more fatiguing than dangerous, for though the country was overrun with English, a minstrel and a page were objects far too insignificant, in the present state of excitement, to meet with either detention or notice. Not a week had passed, however, before rumors of Buchan's parties reached the old man's ears, and filled him with anxiety and dread. The feverish restlessness of Agnes to advance yet quicker on their way, precluded all idea of halting, save in woods and caverns, till the danger had passed. Without informing her of all he had heard, and the danger he apprehended, he endeavored to avoid all towns and villages; but the heavy rains which had set in rendered their path through the country yet more precarious and uncertain, and often compelled him most unwillingly to seek other and better shelter. At Strathaven he became conscious that their dress and appearance were strictly scrutinized, and some remarks that he distinguished convinced him that Buchan had either passed through that town, or was lingering in its neighborhood still. Turning sick with apprehension, the old man hastily retraced his steps to the hostel, where he had left Agnes, and found her, for the first time since their departure, sunk into a kind of sleep or stupor from exhaustion, from which he could not bear to arouse her. Watching her for some little time in silence, his attention was attracted by whispering voices, only[Pg 333] separated from him by a thin partition. They recounted and compared one by one the dress and peculiar characteristics of himself and his companion, seeming to compare it with a written list. Then followed an argument as to whether it would not be better to arrest their progress at once, or send on to the Earl of Buchan, who was at a castle only five miles distant. How it was determined Dermid knew not, for the voices faded in the distance; but he had heard enough, and it seemed indeed as if detention and restraint were at length at hand. What to do he knew not. Night had now some hours advanced, and to attempt leaving the hostel at such an unseasonable hour would be of itself sufficient to confirm suspicion. All seemed at rest within the establishment; there was no sound to announce that a messenger had been dispatched to the earl, and he determined to await as calmly as might be the dawn.
The first streak of light, however, was scarce visible in the east before, openly and loudly, so as to elude all appearance of flight, he declared his intention of pursuing his journey, as the weather had already detained them too long. He called on the hostess to receive her reckoning, commanded the mules to be saddled, all of which was done, to his surprise, without comment or question, and they departed unrestrained; the old man too much overjoyed at this unexpected escape to note that they were followed by two Englishmen, the one on horseback, the other on foot. Anxiety indeed had still possession of him, for he could not reconcile the words he had overheard with their quiet departure; but as the day passed, and they plunged thicker and thicker in the woods of Carrick, and there was no sign of pursuit, or even of a human form, he hailed with joy a solitary house, and believed the danger passed.
The inmates received them with the utmost hospitality; the order for their detention had evidently not reached them, and Dermid determined on waiting quietly there till the exhausted strength of his companion should be recruited, and permit them to proceed. An hour and more passed in cheerful converse with the aged couple who owned the house, and who, with the exception of one or two servants, were its sole inhabitants. The tales of the minstrel were called for and received with a glee which seemed to make all his listeners feel young again. Agnes alone sate apart; her delicate frame and evident exhaustion concealing deeper sufferings from her hosts, who[Pg 334] vied with each other in seeking to alleviate her fatigue and give bodily comfort, if they could offer no other consolation. Leaning back in a large settle in the chimney corner, she had seemed unconscious of the cheerful sociability around her, when suddenly she arose, and advancing to Dermid, laid a trembling hand on his arm. He looked up surprised.
"Hist!" she murmured, throwing back the hair from her damp brow. "Hear ye no sound?"
All listened for a time in vain.
"Again," she said; "'tis nearer, more distinct. Who comes with a troop of soldiers here?"
It was indeed the heavy trampling of many horse, at first so distant as scarcely to be distinguished, save by ears anxious and startled as old Dermid's; but nearer and nearer they came, till even the inmates of the house all huddled, together in alarm. Agnes remained standing, her hand on Dermid's arm, her head thrown back, her features bearing an expression scarce to be defined. The horses' hoofs, mingled with the clang of armor, rung sharp and clear on the stones of the courtyard. They halted: the pommel of a sword was struck against the oaken door, and a night's lodging courteously demanded. The terror of the owners of the house subsided, for the voice they heard was Scotch.
The door was thrown open, the request granted, with the same hospitality as had been extended to the minstrel and the page. On the instant there was a confused sound of warriors dismounting, of horses eager for stabling and forage; and one tall and stately figure, clad from head to foot in mail, entered the house, and removing his helmet, addressed some words of courteous greeting and acknowledgment to its inmates. A loud exclamation burst from the minstrel's lips; but Agnes uttered no sound, she made one bound forward, and dropped senseless at the warrior's feet.