The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter

Chapter 52.

Banks of the Forth.

In the collected council of the following day, the Earl of March made his treacherous request; and Wallace, trusting his vehement oaths of fidelity (because he thought the versatile earl had now discovered his true interest), granted him charge of the Lothians. The Lords Athol and Buchan were not backward in offering their services to the regent; and the rest of the discontented nobles, following the base example, with equal deceit bade him command their lives and fortunes. While asseverations of loyalty filled the walls of the council-hall, and the lauding rejoicings of the people still sounded from without, all spoke of security and confidence to Wallace; and never, perhaps, did he think himself so absolute in the heart of Scotland as at the very moment when three-fourths of its nobility were plotting his destruction.

Lord Loch-awe knew his own influence in the minds of the bravest chieftains. From the extent of his territories and his tried valor, he might well have assumed the title of his great ancestor, and been called King of Woody Morven, but he was content with a patriarch’s sway over so many valiant clans; and previous to the regent’s appearance in the council-hall he opened his intentions to the assembled lords. Some assented with real satisfaction; the rest readily acquiesced in what they had laid so sure a plan to circumvent.

Wallace soon after entered. Loch-awe rising, stood forth before him; and, in a long and persuasive speech, once more declared the wishes of the nation that he would strike the decisive blow on the pretensions of Edward, by himself accepting the crown. The Bishop of Dunkeld, with al the eloquence of learning and the most animated devotion to the interest of Scotland, seconded the petition. Mar and Bothwell enforced it. The disaffected lords thought proper to throw in their conjurations also; and every voice but that of Badenoch poured forth fervent entreaties that he, their liberator, would grant the supplication of the nation.

Wallace rose, and every tongue was mute. “My gratitude to Scotland increases with my life; but my answer must still be the same — I cannot be its king.”

At these words the venerable Loch-awe threw himself on his knees before him. “In my person,” cried he, “see Scotland at your feet! still bleeding with the effects of former struggles for empire, she would throw off all claims but those of virtue, and receive as her anointed sovereign, her father and deliverer! She has no more arguments to utter — these are her prayers, and thus I offer them.”

“Kneel not to me, brave Loch-awe!” cried Wallace; “nor believe the might of these victories lies so thoroughly on this arm that I dare outrage its Maker. Were I to comply with your wishes, I should disobey him who has hitherto made me his happy agent; and how could I guard my kingdom from his vengeance? Your rightful king yet lives; he is an alien from his country, but Heaven may return him to your prayers. Meanwhile, as his representative, as your soldier and protector, I shall be blessed in wearing out my life. My ancestors were ever faithful to the blood of Alexander, and in the same fidelity I will die.”

The firmness with which he spoke, and the determined expression of his noble countenance, convinced Loch-awe that he was not to be shaken; and rising from his knee, he bowed in silence. March whispered to Buchan, “Behold the hypocrite! But we shall unmask him. He thinks to blind us to his towering ambition, by this affected moderation. He will not be called a king; because, with our own crown certain limitations are laid on the prerogative; but he will be our regent, that he may be our dictator, and every day demand gratitude for voluntary services, which, performed as a king, could only be considered as his duty!”

When the council broke up, these sentiments were actively disseminated among the disaffected throng; and each gloomy recess in the woods murmured with seditious meetings. But every lip in the country at large breathed the name of Wallace, as they would have done a god’s; while the land that he had blessed, bloomed on every hill and valley like a garden.

Stirling now exhibited a constant carnival; peace was in every heart, and joy its companion. As Wallace had commanded in the field, he decided in the judgment-hall; and while all his behests were obeyed with a promptitude which kept the machine of state constantly moving in the most beautiful order, his bitterest enemies could not but secretly acknowledge the perfection they were determined to destroy.

His munificent hand stretched itself far and near, that all who had shared the sufferings of Scotland might drink largely of her prosperity. The good Abbot of Scone was invited from his hermitage; and when he heard from the embassadors sent to him, that the brave young warrior whom he had entertained was the resistless Wallace, he no longer thought of the distant and supine Bruce, but centered every wish for his country in the authority of her deliverer. A few days brought him to Stirling; and wishing to remain near the most constant residence of his noble friend, he requested that, instead of being restored to Scone, he might be installed in the vacant monastery of Cambus–Kenneth. Wallace gladly acquiesced; and the venerable abbot being told that his late charge, the Lady Helen, was in the palace, went to visit her; and as he communicated his exultation and happiness, she rejoiced in the benedictions which his grateful spirit invoked on the head of her almost worshiped sovereign. Her heart gave him his title; which she believed the not-to-be-repressed affection of the people would at last force him to accept.

The wives and families of the Lanark veterans were brought from Loch Doine, and again planted in their native valleys; thus, naught in the kingdom appeared different from its most prosperous days, but the widowed heart of the dispenser of all this good. And yet, so fully did he engage himself in the creation of these benefits, that no time seemed left to him for regrets; but they haunted him like persecuting spirits, invisible to all but himself.

During the performance of these things, the Countess of Mar, though apparently lost to all other pursuits than the peaceable enjoyment of her reflected dignities, was absorbed in the one great object of her passion. Eager to be rid of so dangerous a spy and adversary as she deemed Edwin to be, she was laboring day and night to effect by clandestine schemes his banishment, when an unforeseen circumstance carried him far away. Lord Ruthven, while on an embassy to the Hebrides, fell ill. As his disorder was attended with extreme danger, he sent for his wife; and Edwin, impelled by love for his father, and anxiety to soothe the terrified suspense of his mother, readily left the side of his friend, to accompany her to the isles. Lady Mar had now no scrutinizing eye to fear; her nephew Murray was still on duty in Clydesdale; the earl, her husband, trusted her too implicitly even to turn on her a suspicious look; and Helen, she contrived, should be as little in her presence as possible.

Busy, then, as this lady was, the enemies of the regent were not less active in the prosecution of their plans. The Earl of March had arrived at Dunbar; and having dispatched his treasonable proposals to Edward, had received letters from that monarch by sea, accepting his services, and promising every reward that could satisfy his ambition, and the cupidity of those whom he could draw over to his cause. The wary king then told the earl, that if he would send his wife and family to London, as hostages for his faith, he was ready to bring a mighty army to Dunbar; and, by that gate, once more enter Scotland. These negotiations backward and forward from London to Dunbar, and from Dunbar to the treacherous lords at Stirling, occupied much time; and the more, as great precaution was necessary to escape the vigilant eyes of Wallace, which seemed to be present in every part of the kingdom at once. So careful was he, in overlooking, by his well-chosen officers, civil and military, every transaction, that the slightest dereliction from the straight order of things was immediately seen and examined into. Many of these trusty magistrates having been placed in the Lothians, before March took the government, he could not now remove them without exciting suspicion; and therefore, as they remained, great circumspection was used to elude their watchfulness.

From the time that Edward had again entered into terms with the Scottish chiefs, Lord March sent regular tidings to Lord Soulis of the progress of their negotiations. He knew that nobleman would gladly welcome the recall of the King of England; for ever since the revolution in favor of Scotland, he had remained obstinately shut up within his castle of Hermitage. Chagrin at having lost Helen was not the least of his mortifications; and the wounds he had received from the invisible hand which had released her, having been given with all the might of the valiant arm which directed the blow, were not even now healed; his passions kept them still inflamed; and their smart made his vengeance burn the fiercer against Wallace, who he now learned was the mysterious agent of her rescue.

While treason secretly prepared to spring its mine beneath the feet of the regent, he, unsuspicious that any could be discontented where all were free and prosperous, thought of no enemy to the tranquil fulfillment of his duties but the minor persecutions of Lady Mar. No day escaped without bringing him letters, either to invite him to Snawdoun or to lead her to the citadel, where he resided. In every one of these epistles she declared that it was no longer the wildness of passion which impelled her to seek his society, but the moderated regard of a friend. And though perfectly aware of all that was behind these asseverations (for she had deceived him once into a belief of this please, and had made him feel its falseness), he found himself forced at times, out of the civility due to her sex, to comply with her invitations. Indeed, her conduct never gave him reason to hold her in any higher respect, for whenever they happened to be left alone, she made pretensions. The frequency of these scenes at last made him never go to Snawdoun unaccompanied (for she rarely allowed him to have even a glimpse of Helen), and by this precaution he avoided much of her solicitations. But, strange to say, even at the time that this conduct, by driving her to despair, might have excited her to some desperate act, her wayward heart threw the blame of his coldness upon her trammels with Lord Mar, and flattering herself that were he dead, all would happen as she wished, she panted for that hour with an impatience which often tempted her to precipitate the event.

Things were in this situation when Wallace, one night, received a hasty summons from his pillow by a page of Lord Mar’s, requesting him to immediately repair to his chamber. Concluding that something alarming must have happened, he threw on his brigandine and plaid, and entered the apartments of the governor. Mar met him with a countenance, the herald of a dreadful matter.

“What has happened?” inquired Wallace.

“Treason,” answered Mar; “but from what point I cannot guess. My daughter has braved a dark and lonely walk from Snawdoun, to bring the proofs.”

While speaking he lead the chief into the room where Helen sat, like some fairy specter of the night; her long hair, disordered by the winds of a nocturnal storm, mingling with the gray folds of the mantle which enveloped her. Wallace hastened forward — she now no longer flitted away, scared from his approach by the frowning glances of her step-mother. He had once attempted to express his grateful regrets for what she had suffered in her lovely person for his sake, but the countess had then interrupted him, and Helen disappeared. Now he beheld her in a presence, where he could declare all his gratitude without subjecting its gentle object to one harsh word in consequence, and almost forgetting his errand to the governor, and the tidings he had just heard, he remembered only the manner in which she had shielded his life with her arms, and he bent his knee respectfully before her as she rose to his approach. Blushing and silent, she extended her hand to him to rise. He pressed it warmly. “Sweet excellence!” said he, “I am happy in this opportunity, however gained, to again pour out my acknowledgments to you; and though I have been denied that pleasure until now, yet the memory of your generous interest in the friend of your father, is one of the most cherished sentiments of my heart!”

“It is my happiness, as well as my duty, Sit William Wallace,” replied she, “to regard you and my country as one; and that, I hope, will excuse the, perhaps, rash action of this night.” As she spoke, he rose and looked at Lord Mar for explanation.

The earl held a roll of vellum toward him. “This writing,” said he, “was found this evening by my daughter. She was enjoying with my wife and other ladies a moonlight walk on the shores of the Forth behind the palace, when, having strayed at some distance from her friends, she saw this packet lying in the path before her, as if it had just been dropped. It bore no direction; she therefore opened it, and part of the contents soon told her she must conceal the whole, till she could reveal them to me. Not even to my wife did she intrust the dangerous secret, nor would she run any risk by sending it by a messenger. As soon as the family were gone to rest, she wrapped herself in her plaid and finding a passage through one of the low embrasures of Snawdoun, with a fleet step made her way to the citadel and to me. She gave me the packet. Read it, my friend, and judge if we do not owe ourselves to Heaven for so critical a discovery!”

Wallace took the scroll, and read as follows:

“Our trusty fellows will bring you this, and deliver copies of the same to the rest. We shall be with you in four-and-twenty hours after it arrives. The army of our liege lord is now in the Lothians, passing through them under the appellation of succors for the regent from the Hebrides! Keep all safe, and neither himself nor any of his adherents shall have a head on their shoulders by this day week.”

Neither superscription, name, nor date, was to this letter; but Wallace immediately knew the handwriting to be that of Lord March. “Then we must have traitors, even within these walls,” exclaimed Mar; “none but the most powerful chiefs would the proud Cospatrick admit into his conspiracies. And what are we to do? for by to-morrow evening the army this traitor has let into the heart of this country will be at our gates!”

“No,” cried Wallace. “Thanks to God and this guardian angel!” fervently clasping Helen’s hand as he spoke, “we must not be intimidated by treachery! Let us be faithful to ourselves, my veteran friend, and all will go well. It matters not who the other traitors are; they must soon discover themselves, and shall find us prepared to counteract their machinations. Sound your bugles, my lord, to summon the heads of our council.”

At this command, Helen arose, but replaced herself in her chair on Wallace exclaiming, “Stay, Lady Helen, let the sight of such virgin delicacy, braving the terrors of the night to warn betrayed Scotland, nerve every heart with redoubled courage to breast this insidious foe!” Helen did indeed feel her soul awake to all its ancient patriotic enthusiasm; and thus, with a countenance pale, but resplendent with the light of her thoughts, she sat the angel of her heroic inspiration. Wallace often turned to look on her, while her eyes, unconscious of the adoring admiration which spoke in their beams, followed his godlike figure as it moved through the room with a step that declared the undisturbed determination of his soul.

The Lords Bothwell, Loch-awe, and Badenoch were the first that obeyed the call. They started at sight of Helen, but Wallace in a few words related the cause of her appearance, and the portentous letter was laid before them. All were acquainted with the handwriting of Lord March, and all agreed in attributing to its real motive his late solicitude to obtain the command of the Lothians. “What!” cried Bothwell, “but to open his castle gates to the enemy!”

“And to repel him before he reaches ours, my brave chiefs,” replied Wallace, “I have summoned you! Edward will not make this attempt without tremendous powers. He knows what he risks; his men, his life, and his honor. We must therefore expect a resolution in him adequate to such an enterprise. Lose not then a moment; even to-night, this instant, and go out and bring in your followers! I will call up mine from the banks of the Clyde, and be ready to meet him ere he crosses the Carrou.”

While he gave these orders, other nobles thronged in, and Helen, being severally thanked by them all, became so agitated, that stretching out her hand to Wallace, who was nearest to her, she softly whispered, “Take me hence.” He read in her blushing face, the oppression her modesty sustained in such a scene, and with her faltering steps she leaned upon his arm as he conducted her to an interior chamber. Overcome by her former fears and the emotions of the last hour, she sunk into a chair and burst into tears. Wallace stood near her, and as he looked on her, he thought, “If aught on earth ever resembled the beloved of my soul, it is Helen Mar!” And all the tenderness which memory gave to his almost adored wife, and all the grateful complacency with which he regarded Helen, beamed at once from his eyes. She raised her head-she felt that look-it thrilled to her soul. For a moment every former thought seemed lost in the one perception, that he then gazed on her as he had never looked on any woman since his Marion. Was she then beloved?

The impression was evanescent: “No, no!” said she to herself; and waving her hand gently to him with her head bent down; “Leave me, Sir William Wallace. Forgive me — but I am exhausted; my frame is weaker than my mind.” She spoke this at intervals, and Wallace respectfully touching the hand she extended, pressed it to his breast.

“I obey you, dear Lady Helen, and when next we meet, it will, I hope, be to dispel every fear in that gentle bosom.” She bowed her head without looking up, and Wallace left the room.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24