Helen listened with astonishment and grief to this too probable story of her step-mother’s ill-judged tenderness or cruel treachery; and remembering the threats which had escaped that lady in their last conversation, she saw no reason to doubt what so clearly explained the before inexplicable seizure of her father, the betraying of Wallace, and her own present calamity.
“You do not answer me,” rejoined the woman; “but if you think I don’t say true, Lord Soulis himself will assure you of the fact.”
“Alas, no!” returned Helen, profoundly sighing, “I believe it too well. I see the depth of the misery into which I am plunged. And yet,” cried she, recollecting the imposition the men had put upon her:—“yet, I shall not be wholly so, if my father lives, and was not in the extremity they told me of!”
“If that thought gives you comfort, retain it,” returned the woman; “the whole story of the earl’s illness was an invention to bring you at so short notice from the protection of the prior.”
“I thank thee, gracious Providence, for this comfort!” exclaimed Helen; “it inspires me with redoubled trust in thee.”
Margery shook her head. “Ah, poor victim (thought she), how vain is thy devotion!” But she had not time to say so, for her husband and the deserter from Cressingham re-entered the cave. Helen, afraid that it was Soulis, started up. The stranger proceeded to lift her in his arms; she struggled, and in the evidence of her action, struck his beaver; it opened, and discovered a pale and stern countenance, with a large scar across his jaw; this mark of contest, and the gloomy scowl of his eyes, made Helen rush toward the woman for protection. The man hastily closed his helmet, and, speaking through the clasped steel, for the first time she heard his voice; it sounded, hollow and decisive; he bade her prepare to accompany Lord Soulis in a journey to the south.
Helen looked at her shackled arms, and despairing of effecting her escape by any effort of her own, she thought that gaining time might be some advantage; and allowing the man to take her hand, while Macgregor supported her on the other side, they led her out of the cave. She observed the latter smiled significantly at his wife. “Oh!” cried she, “to what am I betrayed? Unhand me! Leave me!” Almost fainting with dread, she leaned against the arm of the stranger.
Thunder now peaked over her head, and lightning shot across the mountains. She looked up: “Merciful Heaven!” cried she, in a voice of deep horror; “send down thy bolt on me!” At that moment Soulis, mounted on his steed, approached, and ordered her to be put into the litter. Incapable of contending with the numbers which surrounded her, she allowed them to execute their master’s commands. Macgregor’s wife was set on a pillion behind him; and Soulis giving the word, they all marched on at a rapid pace. In a few hours, having cleared the shady valleys of the Clyde, they entered the long and barren tracts of the Leadhill Moors.
A dismal hue overspread the country; the thunder yet roared in distant peals, and the lightning came down in such vast sheets that the carriers were often obliged to set down their burden, and cover their eyes to regain their sight. A shrill wind pierced the slight covering of the litter, and blowing it aside, discovered the mist; or the gleaming of some wandering water, as it glided away over the cheerless waste.
“All is desolation, like myself!” thought Helen; but neither the cold wind, nor the rain, now drifting into her vehicle, occasioned her any sensation. It is only when the mind is at ease, that the body is delicate; all within her was too expectant of mental horrors to notice the casual inconveniences of season or situation. The cavalcade with difficulty mounted the steps of a mountainous hill, where the storm raged so turbulently that the men who carried the litter stopped, and told their lord it would be impossible to proceed in the approaching darkness; they conjured him to look at the perpendicular rocks, rendered indistinct by the gathering mist; to observe the overwhelming gusts of the tempest; and then judge whether they dare venture with the litter on so dangerous a pathway, made slippery by descending rain!
To halt in such a spot seemed to Soulis as unsafe as to proceed. “We shall not be better off,” answered he, “should we attempt to return: precipices lie on either side: and to stand still would be equally perilous: the torrents from the heights increase so rapidly, there is every chance of our being swept away, should we remain exposed to the stream.”
Helen looked at these sublime cascades with a calm welcome, as they poured from the hills, and flung their spray upon the roof of her vehicle. She hailed her release in the death they menaced; and far from being intimidated at the prospect, cast a resigned, and even wistful glance, into the swelling lake beneath, under whose waves she expected soon to sleep.
On the remonstrance of their master, the men resumed their pace; and after a hard contention with the storm, they gained the summit of the west side of the mountain, and were descending its eastern brow, when the shades of night closed in upon them. Looking down into the black chaos, on the brink of which they must pass along, they once more protested they could not advance a foot, until the dawn should give them some security.
At this declaration, which Soulis saw could not now be disputed, he ordered the troop to halt under the shelter of a projecting rock. Its huge arch overhung the ledge that formed the road, while the deep gulf at his feet, by the roaring of its waters, proclaimed itself the receptacle of those cataracts which rush tremendous from the ever-streaming Pentland hills.
Soulis dismounted. The men set down the litter, and removed to a distance as he approached. He opened one of the curtains, and throwing himself beside the exhausted, but watchful Helen, clasped his arms roughly about her, and exclaimed, “Sweet minion, I must pillow on your bosom till the morn awakes!” His brutal lips were again riveted to her cheek. Ten thousand strengths seemed then to heave him from her heart; and struggling with a power that amazed even herself, she threw him from her; and holding him off with her shackled arms, her shrieks again pierced the heavens.
“Scream thy soul away, poor foul!” exclaimed Soulis, seizing her fiercely in his arms; “for thou art now so surely mine, that Heaven itself cannot deprive me!”
At that moment her couch was shaken by a sudden shock, and in the next she was covered with the blood of Soulis. A stroke from an unseen arm had reached him, and starting on his feet, a fearful battle of swords took place over the prostrate Helen.
One of the men, out of the numbers who hastened to the assistance of their master, fell dead on her body; while the chief himself, sorely wounded, and breathing revenge and blasphemy, was forced off by the survivors. “Where do you carry me, villians?” cried he. “Separate me not from the vengeance I will yet hurl on that demon who has robbed me of my victim, or ye shall die a death more horrible than hell can inflict!” He raved; but more unheeded than the tempest. Terrified that the spirits of darkness were indeed their pursuers, in spite of his reiterated threats, the men carried him to a distant hollow in the rock, and laid him down, now insensible from loss of blood. One or two of the most desperate returned to see what was become of Lady Helen; well aware that if they could regain her, their master would be satisfied; but, on the reverse, should she be lost, the whole troop knew their fate would be some merciless punishment.
Macgregor, and the deserter of Cressingham, were the first who reached the spot where the lady had been left; with horror they found the litter, but not herself. She was gone. But whether carried off by the mysterious arm which had felled their lord, or she had thrown herself into the foaming gulf beneath, they could not determine. They decided, however, the latter should be their report to Soulis; knowing that he would rather believe the object of his passions had perished, than that she had escaped his toils.
Almost stupefied with consternation, they returned to repeat this tale to their furious lord; who, on having his wounds staunched, had recovered from his swoon. On hearing that the beautiful creature he had so lately believed his own beyond the power of fate; that his property, as he called her, the devoted slave of his will, the mistress of his destiny, was lost to him forever! swallowed up in the whelming wave! he became frantic. There was desperation in every word. He raved; tore up the earth like a wild beast; and, foaming at the mouth, dashed the wife of Macgregor from him, as she approached with a fresh balsam for his wounds. “Off, scum of a damned sex!” cried he. “Where is she, whom I intrusted to thy care?”
“My lord,” answered the affrighted woman, “you know best. You terrified the poor young creature. You forced yourself into a litter, and can you wonder-”
“That I should force you to perdition! execrable witch,” cried he, “that knew no better how to prepare a slave to receive her lord!” As he spoke, he struck her again; but it was with his gauntlet hand, and the eyes of the unfortunate woman opened no more. The blow fell on her temple, and a motionless corpse lay before him.
“My wife!” cried the poor Macgregor, putting his trembling arms about her neck: “Oh, my lord, how have I deserved this? You have slain her!”
“Suppose I have!” returned the chief with a cold scorn; “she was old and ugly; and could you recover Helen, you should cull Hermitage, for a substitute for this prating bedlam.”
Macgregor made no reply, but feeling in his heart that he “who sows the wind, must reap the whirlwind;” that such were the rewards from villainy, to its vile instruments; he could not but say to himself, “I have deserved it of my God, but not of thee!” and sobbing over the remains of his equally criminal wife, by the assistance of his comrades he removed her from the now hated presence of his lord.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12