The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter

Chapter 81.

The Thames.

On the evening of the fourteenth day from the one in which Helen had embarked, the little ship of Dundee entered on the bright bosom of the Nore. While she sat on the deck watching the progress of the vessel with an eager spirit, which would gladly have taken wings to have flown to the object of her voyage, she first saw the majestic waters of the Thames. But it was a tyrannous flood to her, and she marked not the diverging shores crowned with palaces; her eyes looked over every stately dome to seek the black summits of the Tower. At a certain point the captain of the vessel spoke through his trumpet to summon a pilot from the land. In a few minutes he was obeyed. The Englishman took the helm. Helen was reclined on a coil of ropes near him. He entered into conversation with the Norwegian, and she listened in speechless attention to a recital which bound up her every sense in that hearing. The captain had made some unprincipled jest on the present troubles of Scotland, now his adopted country from his commercial interests, and he added with a laugh, “that he though any ruler the right one who gave him a free course in traffic.” In answer to this remark, and with an observation not very flattering to the Norwegian’s estimation of right and wrong, the Englishman mentioned the capture of the once renowned champion of Scotland. Even the enemy who recounted the particulars, showed a truth in the recital which shamed the man who had benefited by the patriotism he affected to despise, and for which Sir William Wallace was now likely to shed his blood.

“I was present,” continued the pilot, “when the brave Scot was put on the raft, which carried him through the Traitor’s Gate into the Tower. His hands and feet were bound with iron; but his head, owing to faintness from the wounds he had received at Lumloch, was so bent down on his breast as he reclined on the float, that I could not then see his face. There was a great pause, for none of us, when he did appear in sight, could shout over the downfall of so merciful a conqueror. Many were spectators of this scene whose lives he had spared on the fields of Scotland; and my brother was amongst them. However, that I might have a distinct view of the man who has so long held our warlike monarch in dread, I went to Westminster Hall on the day appointed for his trial. The great judges of the land, and almost all the lords besides were there, and a very grand spectacle they made. But when the hall-door was opened, and the dauntless prisoner appeared, then it was that I saw true majesty. King Edward on his throne never looked with such a royal air. His very chains seemed given to be graced by him as he moved through the parting crowd with the step of one who had been used to have all his accusers at his feet. Though pale with loss of blood, and his countenance bore traces of the suffering occasioned by the state of his yet unhealed wounds, his head was now erect, and he looked with undisturbed dignity on all around. The Earl of Gloucester, whose life and liberty he had granted at Berwick, sat on the right of the lord chancellor. Bishop Beck, the Lords de Valence and Soulis, with one Monteith (who it seems was the man that betrayed him into our hands), charged him with high treason against the life of King Edward and the peace of his majesty’s realms of England and Scotland. Grievous were the accusations brought against him, and bitter the revilings with which he was denounced as a traitor too mischievous to deserve any show of mercy. The Earl of Gloucester at last rose indignantly, and in energetic and respectful terms, called on Sir William Wallace, by the reverence in which he held the tribunal of future ages, to answer for himself!

“‘On this adjuration, brave earl!’ replied he, ‘I will speak!’ O! men of Scotland, what a voice was that! In it was all honesty and nobleness! and a murmur arose from some who feared its power, which Gloucester was obliged to check by exclaiming aloud with a stern voice; ‘Silence, while Sir William Wallace answers. He who disobeys, sergeant-at-arms, take into custody!’ A pause succeeded, and the chieftain, with god-like majesty of truth, denied the possibility of being a traitor where he never had owed allegiance. But with a matchless fearlessness, he avowed the facts alleged against him, which told the havoc he had made of the English on the Scottish plains, and the devastations he had afterward wrought in the lands of England. ‘It was a son,’ cried he, ‘defending the orphans of his father from the steel and rapine of a treacherous friend! It was the sword of restitution gathering on that false friend’s fields the harvests he had ravaged from theirs!’ He spoke more and nobly — too nobly for them who heard him. They rose to a man to silence what they could not confute; and the sentence of death was pronounced on him — the cruel death of a traitor! The Earl of Gloucester turned pale on his seat, but the countenance of Wallace was unmoved. As he was led forth, I followed, and of Wallace was unmoved. As he was led forth, I followed, and saw the young Le de Spencer, with several other reprobate gallants of our court, ready to receive him. With shameful mockery they flew laurels on his head, and with torrents of derision, told him, it was meet they should so salute the champion of Scotland! Wallace glanced on them a look which spoke pity rather than contempt, and, with a serene countenance, he followed the warden toward the Tower. The hirelings of his accusers loaded him with invectives as he passed along; but the populace who beheld his noble mien, with those individuals who had heard of — while many had felt — his generous virtues, deplored and wept his sentence. To-morrow at sunrise he dies.”

Helen’s face being overshadowed by the low brim of her hat, the agony of her mind could not have been read in her countenance had the good Southron been sufficiently uninterested in his story to regard the sympathy of others; but as soon as he had uttered the last dreadful words, “To-morrow at sunrise he dies!” she started from her seat; her horror-struck senses apprehended nothing further, and turning to the Norwegian, “Captain,” cried she, “I must reach the Tower this night!”

“Impossible!” was the reply: “the tide will not take us up till to-morrow at noon.”

“Then the waves shall!” cried she, and frantically rushing toward the ship’s side, she would have thrown herself into the water, had not the pilot caught her arm.

“Boy!” said he, “are you mad? your action, your looks —”

“No,” interrupted she, wringing her hands; “but in the Tower I must be this night, or — Oh! God of mercy, end my misery!”

The unutterable anguish of her voice, countenance, and gesture excited a suspicion in the Englishman, that this youth was connected with the Scottish chief; and not choosing to hint his surmise to the unfeeling Norwegian, in a different tone he exhorted Helen to composure, and offered her his own boat, which was then towed at the side of the vessel, to take her to the Tower. Helen grasped the pilot’s rough hand, and in a paroxysm of gratitude pressed it to her lips; then forgetful of her engagements with the insensible man who stood unmoved by his side, sprung into the boat. The Norwegian followed her, and in a threatening tone demanded his hire. She now recollected it, and putting her hand into her vest, gave him the string of pearls which had been her necklace. He was satisfied, and the boat pushed off.

The cross, the cherished memorial of her hallowed meeting with Wallace in the chapel of Snawdoun, and which always hung suspended on her bosom, was now in her hand and pressed close to her heart. The rowers plied their oars, and her eyes, with a gaze as if they would pierce the horizon, looked intently onward, while the men labored through the tide. Even to see the walls which contained Wallace, seemed to promise her a degree of comfort she dared hardly hope herself to enjoy. At last the awful battlements of England’s state prison rose before her. She could not mistake them. “That is the Tower,” said one of the rowers. A shriek escaped her, and instantly covering her face with her hands, she tried to shut from her sight those very walls she had so long sought amongst the clouds. They imprisoned Wallace! He groaned within their confines! and their presence paralyzed her heart.

“Shall I die before I reach thee, Wallace?” was the question her almost flitting soul uttered, as she, trembling, yet with swift steps, ascended the stone stairs which led from the water’s edge to the entrance to the Tower. She flew through the different courts to the one in which stood the prison of Wallace. One of the boatmen, being bargeman to the Governor of the Tower, as a privileged person, conducted her unmolested through every ward till she reached the place of her destination. There she dismissed him with a ring from her finger as his reward; and passing a body of soldiers, who kept guard before a large porch that led to the dungeons, she entered, and found herself in an immense paved room. A single sentinel stood at the end near to an iron grating, or small portcullis; there, then, was Wallace! Forgetting her disguise and situation, in the frantic eagerness of her pursuit, she hastily advanced to the man:

“Let me pass to Sir William Wallace,” cried she, “and treasures shall be your reward.”

“Whose treasures, my pretty page?” demanded the soldier; “I dare not, were it at the suit of the Countess of Gloucester herself.”

“Oh!” cried Helen, “for the sake of a greater than any countess in the land, take this jeweled bracelet, and let me pass!”

The man, misapprehending the words of this adjuration, at sight of the diamonds, supposing the page must come from the good queen, no longer demurred. Putting the bracelet into his bosom, he whispered Helen, that as he granted this permission at the risk of his life, she must conceal herself in the interior chamber of the prisoner’s dungeon should any person from the warden visit him during their interview. She readily promised this; and he informed her that, when through this door, she must cross two other apartments, the bolts to the entrances of which she must undraw; and then, at the extremity of a long passage, a door, fastened by a latch, would admit her to Sir William Wallace. With these words, the soldier removed the massy bars, and Helen entered.

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