The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott

Chapter 9

If I know how to manage these affairs,

Thus thrust disorderly upon my hands,

Never believe me —

Richard II.

It was early in the afternoon of St. Valentine’s Day that the prior of the Dominicans was engaged in discharge of his duties as confessor to a penitent of no small importance. This was an elderly man, of a goodly presence, a florid and healthful cheek, the under part of which was shaded by a venerable white beard, which descended over his bosom. The large and clear blue eyes, with the broad expanse of brow, expressed dignity; but it was of a character which seemed more accustomed to receive honours voluntarily paid than to enforce them when they were refused. The good nature of the expression was so great as to approach to defenceless simplicity or weakness of character, unfit, it might be inferred, to repel intrusion or subdue resistance. Amongst the grey locks of this personage was placed a small circlet or coronet of gold, upon a blue fillet. His beads, which were large and conspicuous, were of native gold, rudely enough wrought, but ornamented with Scottish pearls of rare size and beauty. These were his only ornaments; and a long crimson robe of silk, tied by a sash of the same colour, formed his attire. His shrift being finished, he arose heavily from the embroidered cushion upon which he kneeled during his confession, and, by the assistance of a crutch headed staff of ebony, moved, lame and ungracefully, and with apparent pain, to a chair of state, which, surmounted by a canopy, was placed for his accommodation by the chimney of the lofty and large apartment.

This was Robert, third of that name, and the second of the ill fated family of Stuart who filled the throne of Scotland. He had many virtues, and was not without talent; but it was his great misfortune that, like others of his devoted line, his merits were not of a kind suited to the part which he was called upon to perform in life. The king of so fierce a people as the Scots then were ought to have been warlike, prompt, and active, liberal in rewarding services, strict in punishing crimes, one whose conduct should make him feared as well as beloved. The qualities of Robert the Third were the reverse of all these. In youth he had indeed seen battles; but, without incurring disgrace, he had never manifested the chivalrous love of war and peril, or the eager desire to distinguish himself by dangerous achievements, which that age expected from all who were of noble birth and had claims to authority.

Besides, his military career was very short. Amidst the tumult of a tournament, the young Earl of Carrick, such was then his title, received a kick from the horse of Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, in consequence of which he was lame for the rest of his life, and absolutely disabled from taking share either in warfare or in the military sports and tournaments which were its image. As Robert had never testified much predilection for violent exertion, he did not probably much regret the incapacities which exempted him from these active scenes. But his misfortune, or rather its consequences, lowered him in the eyes of a fierce nobility and warlike people. He was obliged to repose the principal charge of his affairs now in one member, now in another, of his family, sometimes with the actual rank, and always with the power, of lieutenant general of the kingdom. His paternal affection would have induced him to use the assistance of his eldest son, a young man of spirit and talent, whom in fondness he had created Duke of Rothsay, in order to give him the present possession of a dignity next to that of the throne. But the young prince’s head was too giddy, and his hand too feeble to wield with dignity the delegated sceptre. However fond of power, pleasure was the Prince’s favourite pursuit; and the court was disturbed, and the country scandalised, by the number of fugitive amours and extravagant revels practised by him who should have set an example of order and regularity to the youth of the kingdom.

The license and impropriety of the Duke of Rothsay’s conduct was the more reprehensible in the public view, that he was a married person; although some, over whom his youth, gaiety, grace, and good temper had obtained influence, were of opinion that an excuse for his libertinism might be found in the circumstances of the marriage itself. They reminded each other that his nuptials were entirely conducted by his uncle, the Duke of Albany, by whose counsels the infirm and timid King was much governed at the time, and who had the character of managing the temper of his brother and sovereign, so as might be most injurious to the interests and prospects of the young heir. By Albany’s machinations the hand of the heir apparent was in a manner put up to sale, as it was understood publicly that the nobleman in Scotland who should give the largest dower to his daughter might aspire to raise her to the bed of the Duke of Rothsay.

In the contest for preference which ensued, George Earl of Dunbar and March, who possessed, by himself or his vassals, a great part of the eastern frontier, was preferred to other competitors; and his daughter was, with the mutual goodwill of the young couple, actually contracted to the Duke of Rothsay.

But there remained a third party to be consulted, and that was no other than the tremendous Archibald Earl of Douglas, terrible alike from the extent of his lands, from the numerous offices and jurisdictions with which he was invested, and from his personal qualities of wisdom and valour, mingled with indomitable pride, and more than the feudal love of vengeance. The Earl was also nearly related to the throne, having married the eldest daughter of the reigning monarch.

After the espousals of the Duke of Rothsay with the Earl of March’s daughter, Douglas, as if he had postponed his share in the negotiation to show that it could not be concluded with any one but himself, entered the lists to break off the contract. He tendered a larger dower with his daughter Marjory than the Earl of March had proffered; and, secured by his own cupidity and fear of the Douglas, Albany exerted his influence with the timid monarch till he was prevailed upon to break the contract with the Earl of March, and wed his son to Marjory Douglas, a woman whom Rothsay could not love. No apology was offered to the Earl of March, excepting that the espousals betwixt the Prince and Elizabeth of Dunbar had not been approved by the States of Parliament, and that till such ratification the contract was liable to be broken off. The Earl deeply resented the wrong done to himself and his daughter, and was generally understood to study revenge, which his great influence on the English frontier was likely to place within his power.

In the mean time, the Duke of Rothsay, incensed at the sacrifice of his hand and his inclinations to this state intrigue, took his own mode of venting his displeasure, by neglecting his wife, contemning his formidable and dangerous father in law, and showing little respect to the authority of the King himself, and none whatever to the remonstrances of Albany, his uncle, whom he looked upon as his confirmed enemy.

Amid these internal dissensions of his family, which extended themselves through his councils and administration, introducing everywhere the baneful effects of uncertainty and disunion, the feeble monarch had for some time been supported by the counsels of his queen, Annabella, a daughter of the noble house of Drummond, gifted with a depth of sagacity and firmness of mind which exercised some restraint over the levities of a son who respected her, and sustained on many occasions the wavering resolution of her royal husband. But after her death the imbecile sovereign resembled nothing so much as a vessel drifted from her anchors, and tossed about amidst contending currents. Abstractedly considered, Robert might be said to doat upon his son, to entertain respect and awe for the character of his brother Albany, so much more decisive than his own, to fear the Douglas with a terror which was almost instinctive; and to suspect the constancy of the bold but fickle Earl of March. But his feelings towards these various characters were so mixed and complicated, that from time to time they showed entirely different from what they really were; and according to the interest which had been last exerted over his flexible mind, the King would change from an indulgent to a strict and even cruel father, from a confiding to a jealous brother, or from a benignant and bountiful to a grasping and encroaching sovereign. Like the chameleon, his feeble mind reflected the colour of that firmer character upon which at the time he reposed for counsel and assistance. And when he disused the advice of one of his family, and employed the counsel of another, it was no unwonted thing to see a total change of measures, equally disrespectable to the character of the King and dangerous to the safety of the state.

It followed as a matter of course that the clergy of the Catholic Church acquired influence over a man whose intentions were so excellent, but whose resolutions were so infirm. Robert was haunted, not only with a due sense of the errors he had really committed, but with the tormenting apprehensions of those peccadilloes which beset a superstitious and timid mind. It is scarce necessary, therefore, to add, that the churchmen of various descriptions had no small influence over this easy tempered prince, though, indeed, theirs was, at that period, an influence from which few or none escaped, however resolute and firm of purpose in affairs of a temporal character. We now return from this long digression, without which what we have to relate could not perhaps have been well understood.

The King had moved with ungraceful difficulty to the cushioned chair which, under a state or canopy, stood prepared for his accommodation, and upon which he sank down with enjoyment, like an indolent man, who had been for some time confined to a constrained position. When seated, the gentle and venerable looks of the good old man showed benevolence. The prior, who now remained standing opposite to the royal seat, with an air of deep deference which cloaked the natural haughtiness of his carriage, was a man betwixt forty and fifty years of age, but every one of whose hairs still retained their natural dark colour. Acute features and a penetrating look attested the talents by which the venerable father had acquired his high station in the community over which he presided; and, we may add, in the councils of the kingdom, in whose service they were often exercised. The chief objects which his education and habits taught him to keep in view were the extension of the dominion and the wealth of the church, and the suppression of heresy, both of which he endeavoured to accomplish by all the means which his situation afforded him. But he honoured his religion by the sincerity of his own belief, and by the morality which guided his conduct in all ordinary situations. The faults of the Prior Anselm, though they led him into grievous error, and even cruelty, were perhaps rather those of his age and profession; his virtues were his own.

“These things done,” said the King, “and the lands I have mentioned secured by my gift to this monastery, you are of opinion, father, that I stand as much in the good graces of our Holy Mother Church as to term myself her dutiful son?”

“Surely, my liege,” said the prior; “would to God that all her children brought to the efficacious sacrament of confession as deep a sense of their errors, and as much will to make amends for them. But I speak these comforting words, my liege, not to Robert King of Scotland, but only to my humble and devout penitent, Robert Stuart of Carrick.”

“You surprise me, father,” answered the King: “I have little check on my conscience for aught that I have done in my kingly office, seeing that I use therein less mine own opinion than the advice of the most wise counsellors.”

“Even therein lieth the danger, my liege,” replied the prior. “The Holy Father recognises in your Grace, in every thought, word, and action, an obedient vassal of the Holy Church. But there are perverse counsellors, who obey the instinct of their wicked hearts, while they abuse the good nature and ductility of their monarch, and, under colour of serving his temporal interests, take steps which are prejudicial to those that last to eternity.”

King Robert raised himself upright in his chair, and assumed an air of authority, which, though it well became him, he did not usually display.

“Prior Anselm,” he said, “if you have discovered anything in my conduct, whether as a king or a private individual, which may call down such censures as your words intimate, it is your duty to speak plainly, and I command you to do so.”

“My liege, you shall be obeyed,” answered the prior, with an inclination of the body. Then raising himself up, and assuming the dignity of his rank in the church, he said, “Hear from me the words of our Holy Father the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, to whom have descended the keys, both to bind and to unloose. ‘Wherefore, O Robert of Scotland, hast thou not received into the see of St. Andrews Henry of Wardlaw, whom the Pontiff hath recommended to fill that see? Why dost thou make profession with thy lips of dutiful service to the Church, when thy actions proclaim the depravity and disobedience of thy inward soul? Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

“Sir prior,” said the monarch, bearing himself in a manner not unbecoming his lofty rank, “we may well dispense with answering you upon this subject, being a matter which concerns us and the estates of our kingdom, but does not affect our private conscience.”

“Alas,” said the prior, “and whose conscience will it concern at the last day? Which of your belted lords or wealthy burgesses will then step between their king and the penalty which he has incurred by following of their secular policy in matters ecclesiastical? Know, mighty king, that, were all the chivalry of thy realm drawn up to shield thee from the red levin bolt, they would be consumed like scorched parchment before the blaze of a furnace.”

“Good father prior,” said the King, on whose timorous conscience this kind of language seldom failed to make an impression, “you surely argue over rigidly in this matter. It was during my last indisposition, while the Earl of Douglas held, as lieutenant general, the regal authority in Scotland, that the obstruction to the reception of the Primate unhappily arose. Do not, therefore, tax me with what happened when I was unable to conduct the affairs of the kingdom, and compelled to delegate my power to another.”

“To your subject, sire, you have said enough,” replied the prior. “But, if the impediment arose during the lieutenancy of the Earl of Douglas, the legate of his Holiness will demand wherefore it has not been instantly removed, when the King resumed in his royal hands the reins of authority? The Black Douglas can do much — more perhaps than a subject should have power to do in the kingdom of his sovereign; but he cannot stand betwixt your Grace and your own conscience, or release you from the duties to the Holy Church which your situation as a king imposes upon you.”

“Father,” said Robert, somewhat impatiently, “you are over peremptory in this matter, and ought at least to wait a reasonable season, until we have time to consider of some remedy. Such disputes have happened repeatedly in the reigns of our predecessors; and our royal and blessed ancestor, St. David, did not resign his privileges as a monarch without making a stand in their defence, even though he was involved in arguments with the Holy Father himself.”

“And therein was that great and good king neither holy nor saintly,” said the prior “and therefore was he given to be a rout and a spoil to his enemies, when he raised his sword against the banners of St. Peter, and St. Paul, and St. John of Beverley, in the war, as it is still called, of the Standard. Well was it for him that, like his namesake, the son of Jesse, his sin was punished upon earth, and not entered against him at the long and dire day of accounting.”

“Well, good prior — well — enough of this for the present. The Holy See shall, God willing, have no reason to complain of me. I take Our Lady to witness, I would not for the crown I wear take the burden of wronging our Mother Church. We have ever feared that the Earl of Douglas kept his eyes too much fixed on the fame and the temporalities of this frail and passing life to feel altogether as he ought the claims that refer to a future world.”

“It is but lately,” said the prior, “that he hath taken up forcible quarters in the monastery of Aberbrothock, with his retinue of a thousand followers; and the abbot is compelled to furnish him with all he needs for horse and man, which the Earl calls exercising the hospitality which he hath a right to expect from the foundation to which his ancestors were contributors. Certain, it were better to return to the Douglas his lands than to submit to such exaction, which more resembles the masterful license of Highland thiggers and sorners [sturdy beggars], than the demeanour of a Christian baron.”

“The Black Douglasses,” said the King, with a sigh, “are a race which will not be said nay. But, father prior, I am myself, it may be, an intruder of this kind; for my sojourning hath been long among you, and my retinue, though far fewer than the Douglas’s, are nevertheless enough to cumber you for their daily maintenance; and though our order is to send out purveyors to lessen your charge as much as may be, yet if there be inconvenience, it were fitting we should remove in time.”

“Now, Our Lady forbid!” said the prior, who, if desirous of power, had nothing meanly covetous in his temper, but was even magnificent in his generous kindness; “certainly the Dominican convent can afford to her sovereign the hospitality which the house offers to every wanderer of whatever condition who will receive it at the hands of the poor servants of our patron. No, my royal liege; come with ten times your present train, they shall neither want a grain of oats, a pile of straw, a morsel of bread, nor an ounce of food which our convent can supply them. It is one thing to employ the revenues of the church, which are so much larger than monks ought to need or wish for, in the suitable and dutiful reception of your royal Majesty, and another to have it wrenched from us by the hands of rude and violent men, whose love of rapine is only limited by the extent of their power.”

“It is well, good prior,” said the King; “and now to turn our thoughts for an instant from state affairs, can thy reverence inform us how the good citizens of Perth have begun their Valentine’s Day? Gallantly, and merrily, and peacefully; I hope.”

“For gallantly, my liege, I know little of such qualities. For peacefully, there were three or four men, two cruelly wounded, came this morning before daylight to ask the privilege of girth and sanctuary, pursued by a hue and cry of citizens in their shirts, with clubs, bills, Lochaber axes, and two handed swords, crying ‘Kill and slay,’ each louder than another. Nay, they were not satisfied when our porter and watch told them that those they pursued had taken refuge in the galilee of the church, but continued for some minutes clamouring and striking upon the postern door, demanding that the men who had offended should be delivered up to them. I was afraid their rude noise might have broken your Majesty’s rest, and raised some surprise.”

“My rest might have been broken,” said the monarch; “but that sounds of violence should have occasioned surprise — Alas! reverend father, there is in Scotland only one place where the shriek of the victim and threats of the oppressor are not heard, and that, father, is — the grave.”

The prior stood in respectful silence, sympathising with the feelings of a monarch whose tenderness of heart suited so ill with the condition and manners of his people.

“And what became of the fugitives?” asked Robert, after a minute’s pause.

“Surely, sire,” said the prior, “they were dismissed, as they desired to be, before daylight; and after we had sent out to be assured that no ambush of their enemies watched them in the vicinity, they went their way in peace.”

“You know nothing,” inquired the King, “who the men were, or the cause of their taking refuge with you?”

“The cause,” said the prior, “was a riot with the townsmen; but how arising is not known to us. The custom of our house is to afford twenty-four hours of uninterrupted refuge in the sanctuary of St. Dominic, without asking any question at the poor unfortunates who have sought relief there. If they desire to remain for a longer space, the cause of their resorting to sanctuary must be put upon the register of the convent; and, praised be our holy saint, many persons escape the weight of the law by this temporary protection, whom, did we know the character of their crimes, we might have found ourselves obliged to render up to their pursuers and persecutors.”

As the prior spoke, a dim idea occurred to the monarch, that the privilege of sanctuary thus peremptorily executed must prove a severe interruption to the course of justice through his realm. But he repelled the feeling, as if it had been a suggestion of Satan, and took care that not a single word should escape to betray to the churchman that such a profane thought had ever occupied his bosom; on the contrary, he hasted to change the subject.

“The sun,” he said, “moves slowly on the index. After the painful information you have given me, I expected the Lords of my Council ere now, to take order with the ravelled affairs of this unhappy riot. Evil was the fortune which gave me rule over a people among whom it seems to me I am in my own person the only man who desires rest and tranquillity!”

“The church always desires peace and tranquillity,” added the prior, not suffering even so general a proposition to escape the poor king’s oppressed mind without insisting on a saving clause for the church’s honour.

“We meant nothing else,” said Robert. “But, father prior, you will allow that the church, in quelling strife, as is doubtless her purpose, resembles the busy housewife, who puts in motion the dust which she means to sweep away.”

To this remark the prior would have made some reply, but the door of the apartment was opened, and a gentleman usher announced the Duke of Albany.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/scott/walter/fair/chapter9.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29