The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter

Chapter 84.

Tower Hill.

Long and silently had she watched his rest. So gentle was his breath, that he scarcely seemed to breathe; and often, during her sad vigils, did she stoop her cheek to feel the respiration which might still bear witness that his outraged spirit was yet fettered to earth. She tremblingly placed her hand on his heart, and still its warm beats spake comfort to hers. The soul of Wallace, as well as his beloved body, was yet clasped in her arms. “The arms of a sister enfold thee,” murmured she to herself; “they would gladly bear thee up, to lay thee on the bosom of thy martyred wife; and there, how wouldst thou smile upon and bless me! And shall we not meet so before the throne of Him whose name is Truth?”

The first rays of the dawn shone upon his peaceful face just as the door opened, and a priest appeared. He held in his hands the sacred host, and the golden dove, for performing the rites of the dying. At this sight, the harbinger of a fearful doom, the fortitude of Helen forsook her; and throwing her arms frantically over the sleeping Wallace, she exclaimed, “He is dead! his sacrament is now with the Lord of Mercy!” Her voice awakened Wallace; he started from his position; and Helen seeing, with a wild sort of disappointment that he, whose gliding to death in his sleep she had even so lately deprecated, now, indeed, lived to mount the scaffold, in unutterable horror, fell back with a heavy groan.

Wallace accosted the priest with a reverential welcome; and then turning to Helen, tenderly whispered her, “My Helen! in this moment of my last on earth, O! engrave on thy heart, that — in the sacred words of the patriarch of Israel — I remember thee, in the kindness of thy youth! in the love of thy desolate espousals to me! when thou camest after me into the wilderness, into a land thou didst not know, and comforted me! And shalt thou not, my soul’s bride, be sacred unto our Lord? the Lord of the widow and the orphan! To Him I commit thee, in steadfast faith that He will never forsake thee! Then, O, dearest part of myself, let not the completion of my fate shake your dependence on the only True and Just. Rejoice that Wallace has been deemed worthy to die for his having done his duty. And what is death, my Helen, that we should shun it, even to rebelling against the Lord of Life? Is it not the door which opens to us immortality? and in that blest moment who will regret that he passed through it in the bloom of his years? Come, then, sister of my soul, and share with thy Wallace the last supper of his Lord; the pledge of the happy eternity to which, by His grace, I now ascend!”

Helen, conscience-struck and re-awakened to holy confidence by the heavenly composure of his manner, obeyed the impulse of his hand, and they both knelt before the minister of peace. While the sacred rite proceeded, it seemed the indissoluble union of Helen’s spirit with that of Wallace: “My life will expire with his!” was her secret response to the venerable man’s exhortation to the anticipated passing soul; and when he sealed Wallace with the holy cross, under the last unction, as one who believed herself standing on the brink of eternity, she longed to share also that mark of death. At that moment the dismal toll of a bell sounded from the top of the Tower. The heart of Helen paused. The warden and his train entered. “I will follow him,” cried she, starting from her knees, “into the grave itself!”

What was said, what was done, she knew not, till she found herself on the scaffold, upheld by the arm of Gloucester. Wallace stood before her, with his hands bound across and his noble head uncovered. His eyes were turned upward, with a martyr’s confidence in the Power he served. A silence, as of some desert waste, reigned throughout the thousands who stood below. The executioner approached to throw the rope over the neck of his victim. At this sight, Helen, with a cry that was reechoed by the compassionate spectators, rushed to his bosom. Wallace, with a mighty strength, burst the bands asunder which confined his arms, and clasping her to him with a force that seemed to make her touch his very heart, his breast heaved as if his soul were breaking from its outraged tenement; and, while his head sunk on her neck, he exclaimed, in a low and interrupted voice:

“My prayer is heard, Helen! Life’s cord is cut by God’s own hand! May he preserve my country, and — Oh! trust from my youth —”

He stopped — he fell; and with the shock, the hastily-erected scaffold shook to its foundation. The pause was dreadful.

The executioner approached the prostrate chief. Helen was still locked close in his arms. The man stooped to raise his victim, but the attempt was beyond his strength. In vain he called on him — to Helen — to separate, and cease from delaying the execution of the law; no voice replied, no motion answered his loud remonstrance. Gloucester, with an agitation which hardly allowed him power to speak or move, remembered the words of Wallace, “that the rope of Edward would never sully his animate body!” and, bending to his friend, he spoke; but all was silent there. He raised the chieftain’s head, and, looking on his face, found indeed the indisputable stamp of death.

“There,” cried he, in a burst of grief, and letting it fall again upon the insensible bosom of Helen —“there broke the noblest heart that ever beat in the breast of man!”

The priests, the executioners crowded round him at this declaration. But, while giving a command in a low tone to the warden, he took the motionless Helen in his arms, and leaving the astonished group round the noble dead, carried her from the scaffold back into the Tower.60

60 The last words of Wallace were from the 71st Psalm —“My trust from my youth! O Lord God, thou art my hope unto the end!”

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