The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter

Chapter 83.

The State Dungeon.

Though all the furies of the elements seemed let loose to rage around the walls of the dungeon, still Wallace slept in the loud uproar. Calm was within, and the warfare of the world could not disturb the balmy rest into which the angel of peace had steeped his senses. From this profound repose he was awakened by the entrance of Gloucester. Helen had just sunk into a slight slumber; but the first words of the earl aroused her, and rising, she followed her beloved Wallace to his side.

Gloucester put a scroll into the hand of Wallace: “Sign that,” said he, “and you are free. I know not its contents; but the king commissioned me, as a mark of his grace, to be the messenger of your release.”

Wallace read the conditions, and the color deepened on his cheek as his eye met each article. “He was to reveal the asylum of Bruce, to forswear Scotland forever, and to take an oath of allegiance to Edward, the seal of which should be the English earldom of Cleveland!’ Wallace closed the parchment. “King Edward knows what will be my reply, I need not speak it.”

“You will accept his terms?” asked the earl.

“Not to insure me a life of ages, with all earthly bliss my portion! I have spoken to these offers before. Read them, my noble friend, and then give him as mine the answer which would be yours.”

Gloucester obeyed, and while his eyes were bent on the parchment, those of Helen were fixed on her almost worshiped husband, she looked through his beaming countenance into his very soul, and there saw the sublime purpose that consigned his unbending head to the scaffold. When Gloucester had finished, covered with the burning blush of shame, he crushed the disgraceful scroll in his hand, and exclaimed, with honorable vehemence, against the deep duplicity, the deeper cruelty, of his father-in-law, so to mock by base subterfuges the embassy of France and its noble object.

“This is the morning in which I was to have met my fate!” replied Wallace. “Tell this tyrant of the earth that I am even now ready to receive the last stroke of his injustice. In the peaceful grave, my Helen,” added he, turning to her, who sat pale and aghast, “I shall be beyond his power!”

Gloucester walked the room in great disturbance of mind, while Wallace continued, in a lowered tone, to recall some perception of his own consolations to the abstracted and soul-struck Helen.

The earl stopped suddenly before them: “That the king did not expect your acquiescence without some hesitation, I cannot doubt, for when I informed him the Lady Helen Mar, now your wife, was the sharer of your prison, he started, and told me that should you still oppose yourself to his conditions, I must bring her to him; who might, perhaps, be the means of persuading you to receive his mercy.”

“Never!” replied Wallace; “I reject what he calls mercy. He has no rights of judgment over me, and his pretended mercy is an assumption which, as a true Scot, I despise. He may rifle me of my life, but he shall never beguile me into any acknowledgment of an authority that is false. No wife, nor aught of mine, shall ever stand before him as a suppliant for William Wallace. I will die as I have lived, the equal of Edward in all things but a crown, and his superior in being true to the glory of prince or peasant — unblemished honor!”

Finding the Scottish chief not to be shaken in this determination, Gloucester, humbled to the soul by the base tyranny of his royal father-in-law, soon after withdrew, to acquaint that haughty monarch with the ill success of his embassy. But ere noon had turned, he reappeared, with a countenance declarative of some distressing errand. He found Helen awakened to the full perception of all her pending evils — that she was on the eve of losing forever the object dearest to her in this world! and though she wept not, though she listened to the lord of all her wishes with smiles of holy approval, her heart bled within; and, with a welcome which enforced his consolatory arguments, she hailed her own inwardly foreboding mortal pains.

“I come,” said Gloucester, “not to urge you to send Lady Helen as a suitor to King Edward, but to spare her the misery of being separated from you while life is yours.” He then said that the French embassadors were kept in ignorance of the conditions which were offered to the object of their mission; and on being informed that he had refused them, they showed themselves so little satisfied with the sincerity of what had been done, that Edward thought it expedient to conciliate Philip by taking some pains to dislodge their suspicions. To this effect he proposed to the French lords sending his final propositions to Sir William Wallace by that chieftain’s wife, who he found was then his companion in the Tower. “On my intimating,” continued the earl, “that I feared she would be unable to appear before him, his answer was, ‘Let her see to that; such a refusal shall be answered by an immediate separation from her husband.’”

“Let me in this demand,” cried she, turning with collected firmness to Wallace, “satisfy the will of Edward. It is only to purchase my continuance with you. Trust me, noblest of men; I should be unworthy of the name you have given me could I sully it in my person by one debasing word or action to the author of all our ills!”

“Ah! my Helen,” replied he, “what is it you ask? Am I to live to see a repetition of the horrors of Ellerslie?”

“No, on my life,” answered Glouceseter; “in this instance I would pledge my soul for King Edward’s manhood. His ambition might lead him to trample on all men; but still for woman he feels as becomes a man and a knight.”

Helen renewed her supplications; and Wallace (aware that should he withhold her attendance, his implacable adversary, however he might spare her personal injury, would not forbear wounding her to the soul by tearing her from him) gave an unwilling consent to what might seem a submission on his part to an authority he had shed his blood to oppose.

Helen renewed her supplications; and Wallace (aware that should he withhold her attendance, his implacable adversary, however he might spare her personal injury, would not forbear wounding her to the soul by tearing her from him) gave an unwilling consent to what might seem a submission on his part to an authority he had shed his blood to oppose.

“But not in these garments,” said he; “she must be habited as becomes her sex and her own delicacy.”

Anticipating this propriety, Gloucester had imparted the circumstance to his countess, and she had sent a casket, which the earl himself now brought in from the passage. Helen retired to the inner cell, and hastily arranging herself in the first suit that presented itself, reappeared in female apparel, and wrapped in a long veil. As Gloucester took her hand to lead her forth, Wallace clasped the other in his.

“Remember, my Helen,” cried he, “that on no terms but untrammeled freedom of soul, will your Wallace accept of life. This will not be granted by the man to whom you go; then speak and act in his presence as if I were already beyond the skies.”

Had this faithful friend, now his almost adoring wife, left his side with more sanguine hopes, how grievously would they have been blasted!

After an absence of two hours, she returned to the dungeon of Wallace: and as her trembling form was clasped in his arms, she exclaimed, in a passion of tears:

“Here will I live, here will I die! They may sever my soul from my body, but never again part me from this dear bosom!”

“Never, never, my Helen!” said he, reading her conference with the king in the wild terror of its effects. Her senses seemed fearfully disordered. While she clung to him, and muttered sentences of an incoherency that shook him to the soul, he cast a look of such expressive inquiry upon Gloucester, that the earl could only answer by hastily putting his hand on his face to hide his emotion. At last the tears she shed appeared to relieve the excess of her agonies, and she gradually sunk into an awful calm. Then rising from her husband’s arms, she seated herself on his stony couch, and said in a firm voice, “Earl, I can now bear to hear you repeat the last decision of the King of England.”

Though not absolutely present at the interview between his sovereign and Lady Helen, from the anteroom Gloucester had heard all that passed, and now he briefly confessed to Wallace, that he had too truly appreciated the pretended conciliation of the king. Edward’s proposals to Helen were as artfully couched as deceptive in their design. Their issue was to make Wallace his slave, or to hold him his victim. In his conference with her, he addressed the vanity of an ambitious woman; then, all the affections of a devoted heart: he enforced his arguments with persuasions to allure, and threats to compel obedience. In the last he called up every image to appall the soul of Helen; but, steadfast in the principles of her lord, while ready to sink under the menaced horrors of his fate, she summoned all her strength to give utterance to her last reply.

“Mortal distinctions, King of England!” cried she, “cannot bribe the wife of Sir William Wallace to betray his virtues. His life is dear to me, but his immaculate faith to his God and his lawful prince are dearer. I can see him die and live — for I shall join him triumphant in Heaven; but to behold him dishonor himself, to counsel him so to do, is beyond my power — I should expire with grief in the shameful moment!”

The indignation of the king at this answer was too oppressive of the tender nature of Lady Wallace for Gloucester to venture repeating it to her husband; and, while she turned deathly pale at the recollection, Wallace, exulting in her conduct, pressed her hand silently but fervently to his lips.

The earl resumed, but, observing the reawakened agonies of her mind in her too expressive countenance, he strove to soften the blow he must inflict in the remainder of his narrative.

“Dearest lady,” said he, rather addressing her than Wallace, “to convince your suffering spirit that no earthly means have been left unessayed to change the unjust purpose of the king, know that when he quitted you I left in his presence the queen and my wife, both weeping tears of disappointment. On the moment when I found that arguments could no longer avail, I implored him, by every consideration of God and man, to redeem his honor, sacrificed by the unjust decree pronounced on Sir William Wallace. My entreaties were repulsed with anger, for the sudden entrance of Lord Athol with fresh fuel to his flame, so confirmed his direful resolution that, desperate for my friend, I threw myself on my knees. The queen, and then my wife, both prostrate at his feet, enforced my suit, but all in vain; his heart seemed hardened by our earnestness; and his answer, while it put us to silence, granted Wallace a triumph even in his dungeon.

“Cease!” cried the king, “Wallace and I have now come to that issue where one must fall. I shall use my advantage, though I should walk over the necks of half my kindred to accomplish his fate. I can find no security on my throne, no peace in my bed, until I know that he, my direst enemy, is no more.”

“Sorry am I, generous Gloucester,” interrupted Wallace, “that for my life, you have stooped your knee to one so unworthy of your nobleness. Let, then, his tyranny take its course. But its shaft will not reach the soul his unkingly spirit hopes to wound. The bitterness of death was passed when I quitted Scotland. And for this body, he may dishonor it, mangle its limbs, but William Wallace may then be far beyond his reach.”

Gloucester gazed on him, doubting the expression of his countenance. It was calm, but pale even to a marble hue.

“Surely,” said he, “my unconquered friend will not now be forced to self violence?”

“God forbid!” returned Wallace; “suspect me not of such base vassalage to this poor tabernacle of clay. Did I believe it my Father’s will that I should die at every pore I would submit, for so his immaculate Son laid down his life for a rebellious world. And is a servant greater than his master, that I should say, Exempt me from this trial? No! I await his summons, but he so strengthens my soul on his breast, that the cord of Edward shall never make my free-born Scottish neck feel its degrading touch.”

His pale cheek was now luminous with a bright smile as he pressed his swelling heart.

With reawakened horror Helen listened to the words of Wallace, which referred to the last outrage to be committed on his sacred remains. She recalled the corresponding threats of the king, and again losing self-possession, starting wildly up, exclaimed:

“And is there no humanity in that ruthless man! Oh!” cried she, tearing her eyes from the beloved form on which it had been such bliss to gaze, “let the sacrifice of my life be offered to this cruel king to save from indignity —”

She could add no more, but dropped half lifeless on the arm of Wallace.

Gloucester understood the object of such anguished solicitude, and while Wallace again seated her, he revived her by a protestation, that the clause she so fearfully deprecated, had been repealed by Edward. But the good earl blushed as he spoke, for in this instance he said what was not the truth. Far different had been the issue of all his attempts at mitigation. The arrival of Athol from Scotland with advices from the Countess of Strathearn, that Lady Helen Mar had fled southward to raise an insurrection in favor of Wallace, and that Lord Bothwell had gone to France to move Philip to embrace the same cause, gave Edward so apt an excuse for giving full way to his hatred against the Scottish chief, that he pronounced an order for the immediate and unrestricted execution of his sentence. Artifice to mislead the French embassadors with an idea that he was desirous to accord with their royal master’s wish, had been the sole foundation of his proposals to Wallace. And his interview with Lady Helen, though so intemperately conducted, was dictated by the same subtle policy.

When Gloucester found the impossibility of obtaining any further respite from the murderous decree, he attempted to prevail for the remission of the last clause, which ordered that his friend’s noble body should be dismembered, and his limbs sent, as terrors to rebellion, to the four capital fortresses of Scotland. Edward spurned at this petition with even more acrimony than he had done the prayer for his victim’s life, and Gloucester then starting from his knee, in a burst of honest indignation exclaimed, “Oh! king, remember what is done by thee this day. Refusing to give righteous judgment in favor of one who prefers virtue to a crown and life! As insincere, as secret, have been your last conditions with him, but they will be revealed when the great Judge that searcheth all men’s hearts shall cause thee to answer for this matter at the dreadful day of universal doom. Thou has now given sentence on a patriot and a prince, and then shall judgment be given on thee!”

“Dangerous indeed is his rebellious spirit,” cried Edward, in almost speechless wrath, “since it affects even the duty of my own house! Gloucester, leave my presence, and on pain of your own death, dare not approach me till I send for you, to see this rebel’s head on London Bridge!”

To disappoint the revengeful monarch of at least this object of his malice, Gloucester was now resolved, and imparting his wishes to the warden of the Tower, who was his trusty friend, he laid a plan accordingly.

Helen had believed his declaration to her, and bowed her head in sign that she was satisfied with his zeal. The earl, addressing Wallace, continued: “Could I have purchased thy life, thou preserver of mine, with the forfeiture of all I possess I should have rejoiced in the exchange. But as that may not be, is there aught in the world which I can do to administer to thy wishes?”

“Generous Gloucester!” exclaimed Wallace, “how unwearied has been your friendship! But I shall not tax it much further. I was writing my last wishes when this angel entered my apartment; she will now be the voice of William Wallace to his friends. But still I must make one request to you — one which I trust will not be out of your power. Let this heart, ever faithful to Scotland, be at least buried in its native country. When I cease to breathe, give it to Helen, and she will mingle it with the sacred dust of those I love. For herself, dear Gloucester! ah! guard the vestal purity and life of my best beloved! for there are those who, when I am gone, may threaten both.”

Gloucester, who knew that in this apprehension Wallace meant the Lords Soulis and De Valence, pledged himself for the performance of his first request; and for the second, he assured him he would protect Helen as a sister. But she, regardless of all other evils than that of being severed from her dearest and best friend, exclaimed in bitter sorrow:

“Wherever I am, still and forever shall all of Wallace that remains on earth be with me. He gave himself to me, and no mortal power shall divide us!”

Gloucester could not reply before the voice of the warden, calling to him that the hour of shutting the gates was arrived, compelled him to bid his friend farewell. He grasped the hand of Wallace with a strong emotion, for he knew that the next time he should meet him would be on the scaffold. During the moments of his parting, Helen, with her hands clasped on her knees, and her eyes bent downward, inwardly and earnestly invoked the Almighty to endow her with fortitude to bear the horrors she was to witness, that she might not, by her agonies, add to the tortures of Wallace.

The cheering voice, that was ever music to her ears, recalled her from this devout abstraction. He laid his hand on hers, and gazing on her with a tender pity, held such sweet discourse with her on the approaching end of all his troubles, of his everlasting happiness, where “all tears are dried away!” that she listened, and wept, and even smiled.

“Yes,” added he, “a little while, and my virgin bride shall give me her dear embrace in heaven; angels will participate our joy, and my Marion’s grateful spirit join the blest communion! She died to preserve my life; you suffered a living death to maintain my honor! Can I then divide ye, noblest of created beings, in my soul! Take, then, my heart’s kiss, dear Helen, thy Wallace’s last earthly kiss!”

She bent toward him, and fixed her lips to his. It was the first time they had met; his parting words still hung on them, and an icy cold ran through all her veins. She felt his heart beat heavily against hers, as he said:

“I have not many hours to be with thee, and yet a strange lethargy overpowers my senses; but I shall speak to thee again!”

He looked on her as he spoke, with such a glance of holy love, that not doubting he was now bidding her, indeed, his last farewell, that he was to pass from this sleep out of the power of man, she pressed his hand without a word, and as he dropped his head back upon his straw pillow, with an awed spirit she saw him sink to profound repose.

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