The sun rose on Wallace and his brave legions as they traversed the once romantic glades of Strathmore; but now the scene was changed. The villages were abandoned, and the land lay around in uncultivated wastes. Sheep, without a shepherd, fled wild from the approach of man; and wolves issued, howling, from the cloisters of depopulated monasteries. The army approached Dumblane; but it was without inhabitant; grass grew in the streets; and the birds which roosted in the desert dwellings flew scared from the windows as the trumpet of Wallace sounded through the town. Loud echoes repeated the summons from its hollow walls; but no other voice was heard, no human face appeared; for the ravening hand of Cressingham had been there! Wallace sighed as he looked around him. “Rather smile,” cried Graham, “that Heaven hath given you the power to say to the tyrants who have done this, ‘Here shall your proud waves be stayed!’”
They proceeded over many a hill and plain, and found that the same withering touch of desolation had burned up and overwhelmed the country. Wallace saw that his troops were faint for want of food; cheering them, he promised that Ormsby should provide them a feast in Perth; and, with reawakened spirits, they took the River Tay at its fords, and were soon before the walls of that well-armed city. But it was governed by a coward, and Ormsby fled to Dundee at the first sight of the Scottish army. His flight might have warranted the garrison to surrender without a blow, but a braver man being his lieutenant, sharp was the conflict before Wallace could compel that officer to abandon the ramparts and to sue for the very terms he had at first rejected.
After the fall of Perth, the young regent made a rapid progress through that part of the country; driving the southron garrisons out of Scone, and all the embattled towns; expelling them from the castles of Kincain, Elcho, Kinfauns, and Doune; and then proceeding to the marine fortresses (those avenues by which the ships of England had poured its legions on the eastern coast), he compelled Dundee, Cupar, Glamis, Montrose, and Aberdeen, all to acknowledge the power of his arms. He seized most of the English ships in those ports, and manning them with Scots, soon cleared the seas of the vessels which had escaped, taking some, and putting others to flight; and one of the latter was the fugitive Ormsby.
This enterprise achieved, Wallace, with a host of prisoners, turned his steps toward the Forth; but ere he left the banks of the Tay and Dee, he detached three thousand men under the command of Lord Ruthven, giving him a commission to range the country from the Carse of Gowrie to remotest Sutherland, and in all that tract reduce every town and castle which had admitted a Southron garrison. Wallace took leave of Lord Ruthven at Huntingtower, and that worthy nobleman, when he assumed, with the government of Perth, this extensive command, said, as he grasped the regent’s hand, “I say not, bravest of Scots, what is my gratitude for thus making me an arm of my country, but deeds will show!”
He then bade a father’s adieu to his son, counseling him to regard Wallace as the light in his path; and, embracing him, they parted.
A rapid march, round by Fifeshire (through which victory followed their steps), brought the conqueror and his troops again within sight of the towers of Stirling. It was on the eve of the day on which he had promised Earl de Warenne should see the English prisoners depart for the borders. No doubt of his arriving at the appointed time was entertained by the Scots or by the Southrons in the castle; the one knew the sacredness of his word, and the other having felt his prowess, would not so far disparage their own as to suppose that any could withstand him by whom they were beaten.
De Warenne, as he stood on the battlements of the keep, beheld from afar the long line of Scottish soldiers as they descended the Ochil Hills. When he pointed it out to De Valence, that nobleman (who, in proportion as he wished to check the arms of Wallace, had flattered himself that it might happen), against the evidence of his eyesight, contradicted the observation of the veteran earl.
“Your sight deceives you,” said he, “it is only the sunbeams playing on the cliffs.”
“Then those cliffs are moving ones,” cried De Warenne, “which, I fear, have ground our countrymen on the coast to powder! We shall find Wallace here by sunset, to show us how he has resented the affront our ill-advised prince cast on his jealous honor.”
“His honor,” returned De Valence, “is like that of his countrymen’s-an enemy alike to his own interest and to that of others. Had it allowed him to accept the crown of Scotland, and so have fought Edward with the concentrating arm of a king; or would he even now offer peace to our sovereign, granting his prerogative as liege lord of the country, all might go well; but as the honor you speak of prevents his using these means of ending the contest, destruction must close his career.”
“And what quarrel,” demanded De Warenne, “can you, my Lord de Valence, have against this nice honor of Sir William Wallace, since you allow it secures the final success of our cause?”
“His honor and himself are hateful to me!” impatiently answered De Valence; “he crosses me in my wishes, public and private; and for the sake of my king and myself, I might almost be tempted-” He turned pale as he spoke, and met the penetrating glance of De Warenne. He paused.
“Tempted to what?” asked De Warenne.
“To a Brutus mode of ridding the state of an enemy.”
“That might be noble in a Roman citizen,” returned De Warenne, “which would be villainous in an English lord, treated as you have been by a generous victor, not the usurper of any country’s liberties, but rather a Brutus in defense of his own. Which man of us all, from the general to the meanest follower in our camps, has he injured?”
Lord Aymer frowned. “Did he not expose me, threaten me with an ignominious death, on the walls of Stirling?”
“But was it before he saw the Earl of Mar, with his hapless family, brought, with halters on their necks, to be suspended from this very tower? Ah! what a tale has the lovely countess told me of that direful scene! What he then did was to check the sanguinary Cressingham from imbruiting his hands in the blood of female and infant innocence.”
“I care not,” cried De Valence, “what are or are not the offenses of this domineering Wallace, but I hate him; and my respect for his advocates cannot but correspond with that feeling.” As he spoke, that he might not be further molested by the arguments of De Warenne, he abruptly turned away, and left the battlements.
Pride would not allow the enraged earl to confess his private reasons for this vehement enmity against the Scottish chief. A conference which he had held the preceding evening with Lord Mar, was the cause of this augmented hatred; and, from that moment, the haughty Southron vowed the destruction of Wallace, by open attack, or secret treachery. Ambition, and the base counterfeit of love, those two master passions in untempered minds, were the springs of this antipathy. The instant in which he knew that the young creature whom at a distance he discerned clinging around the Earl of Mar’s neck in the streets of Stirling, was the same Lady Helen on whose account Lord Soulis had poured on him such undeserved invectives in Bothwell Castle; curious to have a nearer view of one whose transcendent beauty he had often heard celebrated by others, he ordered her to be immediately conveyed to his apartments in the citadel.
On their first interview he was more struck by her personal charms than he had ever been with any woman’s, although few were so noted for gallantry in the English court as himself. He could hardly understand the nature of his feelings while discoursing with her. To all others of her sex he had declared his enamored wishes with as much ease as vivacity, but when he looked on Helen the admiration her loveliness inspired was checked by an indescribable awe. No word of passion escaped his lips; he sought to win her by a deportment consonant with her own dignity of manner, and obeyed all her wishes, excepting when they pointed to any communication with her parents. He feared the wary eyes of the Earl of Mar. But nothing of this reverence of Helen was grounded on any principle within the heart of De Valence. His idea of virtue was so erroneous that he believed, by the short assumption of its semblance, he might so steal on the confidence of his victim as to induce her to forget all the world-nay, heaven itself-in his sophistry and blandishments. To facilitate this end he at first designed to precipitate the condemnation of the earl, that he might be rid of a father’s existence, holding, in dread of his censure, the perhaps otherwise yielding heart of his lovely intended mistress.
The unprincipled and impure can have no idea what virtue or delicacy are other than vestments of disguise or of ornament, to be thrown off at will; and therefore, to reason with such minds is to talk to the winds-to tell a man who is born blind to decide between two colors. In short, a libertine heart is the same in all ages of the world. De Valence, therefore, seeing the anguish of her fears for her father, and hearing the fervor with which she implored for his life, adopted the plan of granting the earl reprieves from day to day; and in spite of the remonstrances of Cressingham, he intended (after having worked upon the terrors of Helen), to grant to her her father’s release, on condition of her yielding herself to be his. He had even meditated that the accomplishment of this device should have taken place the very night in which Wallace’s first appearance before Stirling had called its garrison to arms.
Impelled by vengeance against the man who had driven him from Dumbarton and from Ayr, and irritated at being delayed in the moment when his passion was to seize its object, De Valence thought to end all by a coup de main-and rushing out of the gates, was taken prisoner. Such was the situation of things, when Wallace first became master of the place.
Now when the whole of the English army were in the same captivity with himself, when he saw the lately proscribed Lord Mar, Governor of Stirling, and that the Scottish cause seemed triumphant on every side, De Valence changed his former illicit views on Helen, and bethought him of making her his wife. Ambition, as well as love, impelled him to this resolution; and he foresaw that the vast influence which his marriage with the daughter of Mar must give him in the country, would be a decisive argument with the King of England.
To this purpose, not doubting the Scottish’s earl acceptance of such a son-in-law, on the very day that Wallace marched toward the coast, De Valence sent to request an hour’s private audience of Lord Mar. He could not then grant it; but at noon, next day, they met in the governor’s apartments.
The Southron, without much preface, opened his wishes, and proffered his hand for the Lady Helen. “I’ll make her the proudest lady in Great Britain,” continued he; “for she shall have a court in my Welsh province, little inferior to that of Edward’s queen.”
“Pomp would have no sway with my daughter,” replied the earl; “it is the princely mind she values, not its pagentry. Whomsoever she prefers the tribute will be paid to the merit of the object, not to his rank; and therefore, earl, should it be you, the greater will be your pledge of happiness. I shall repeat to her what you have said; and to-morrow deliver her answer.”
Not deeming it possible that it should be otherwise than favorable, De Valence allowed his imagination to roam over every anticipated delight. He exulted in the pride with which he would show this perfection of northern beauty to the fair of England; how would the simple graces of her seraphic form, which looked more like a being of air than of earth, put to shame the labored beauties of the court? And then it was not only the artless charms of a wood-nymph he would present to the wondering throng, but a being whose majesty of soul proclaimed her high descent and peerless virtues. How did he congratulate himself, in contemplating this unsullied temple of virgin innocence, that he had never, by even the vapor of one impassioned sigh, contaminated her pure ear, or broken the magic spell, which seemed fated to crown him with happiness unknown, with honor unexampled! To be so blessed, so distinguished, so envied, was to him a dream of triumph, that wafted away all remembrance of his late defeat; and he believed, in taking Helen from Scotland, he should bear away a richer prize than any he could leave behind.
Full of these anticipations, he attended the Governor of Stirling the next day, to hear his daughter’s answer. But unwilling to give the earl that advantage over him which a knowledge of his views in the matter might occasion, he affected a composure he did not feel; and with a lofty air entered the room as if he were come rather to confer than to beg a favor. This deportment did not lessen the satisfaction with which the brave Scot opened his mission.
“My lord, I have just seen my daughter. She duly appreciates the honor you would confer on her; she is grateful for all your courtesies whilst she was your prisoner, but beyond that sentiment, her heart, attached to her native land, cannot sympathize with your wishes.”
De Valence started. He did not expect anything in the shape of a denial; but supposing that perhaps a little of his own art was tried by the father to enhance the value of his daughter’s yielding, he threw himself into a chair, and affecting chagrin at a disappointment (which he did not believe was seriously intended), exclaimed with vehemence, “Surely, Lord Mar, this is not meant as a refusal? I cannot receive it as such, for I know Lady Helen’s gentleness, I know the sweet tenderness of her nature would plead for me, were she to see me at her feet, and hear me pour forth the most ardent passion that ever burned in a human breast. Oh, my gracious lord, if it be her attachment to Scotland which alone militates against me, I will promise that her time shall be passed between the two countries. Her marriage with me may facilitate that peace with England which must be the wish of us all; and perhaps the lord wardenship which De Warenne now holds may be transferred to me. I have reasons for expecting that it will be so; and then she, as a queen in Scotland, and you as her father, may claim every distinction from her fond husband, every indulgence for the Scots, which your patriot heart can dictate. This would be a certain benefit to Scotland; while the ignis fatuus you are now following, however brilliant may be its career during Edward’s absence, must on his return be extinguished in disaster and infamy.”
The silence of the Earl of Mar, who, willing to hear all that was in the mind of De Valence, had let him proceed uninterrupted, encouraged the Southron lord to say more than he had at first intended to reveal; but when he made a pause, and seemed to expect an answer, the earl spoke:
“I am fully sensible of the honor you would bestow upon my daughter and myself by your alliance; but, as I have said before, her heart is too devoted to Scotland to marry any man whose birth does not make it his duty to prefer the liberty of her native land, even before his love for her. That hope to see our country freed from a yoke unjustly laid upon her-that hope which you, not considering our rights, or weighing the power that lies in a just cause, denominate an ignis fatuus, is the only passion I believe that lives in the gentle bosom of my Helen; and therefore, noble earl, not even your offers can equal the measure of her wishes.”
At this speech De Valence bit his lip with real disappointment; and starting from his chair now in unaffected disorder, “I am not to be deceived, Lord Mar,” cried he; “I am not to be cajoled by the pretended patriotism of your daughter; I know the sex too well to be cheated with these excuses. The ignis fatuus that leads your daughter from my arms, is not the freedom of Scotland, but the handsome rebel who conquers in its name! He is now fortune’s minion, but he will fall, Lord Mar, and then what will be the fate of his mad adherents?”
“Earl de Valence,” replied the veteran, “sixty winters have checked the tides of passion in my veins; but the indignation of my soul against any insult offered to my daughter’s delicacy, or to the name of the lord regent of Scotland is not less powerful in my breast. You are my prisoner, and I pardon what I could so easily avenge. I will even answer you, and say that I do not know of any exclusive affection subsisting between my daughter and Sir William Wallace; but this I am assured of, that were it the case, she would be more ennobled in being the wife of so true a patriot and so virtuous a man, than were she advanced to the bosom of an emperor. And for myself, were he to-morrow hurled by a mysterious Providence from his present nobly-won elevation, I should glory in my son were he such, and would think him as great on a scaffold as on a throne.”
“It is well that is your opinion,” replied De Valence, stopping in his wrathful strides, and turning on Mar with vengeful irony; “cherish these heroics, for you will assuredly see him so exalted. Then where will be his triumphs over Edward’s arms and Pembroke’s heart? Where your daughter’s patriot husband; you glorious son? Start not, old man, for by all the powers of hell I swear that some eyes which now look proudly on the Southron host, shall close in blood! I announce a fact!”
“If you do,” replied Mar, shuddering at the demoniac fire that lightened from the countenance of De Valence, “it must be by the agency of devils; and their minister, vindictive earl, will meet the vengeance of the Eternal arm.”
“These dreams,” cried De Valence, “cannot terrify me. You are neither a seer, nor I a fool, to be taken by such prophecies. But were you wise enough to embrace the advantage I offer, you might be a prophet of good, greater than he of Ercildown, to your nation; for all that you could promise, I would take care should be fulfilled. But you cast from you your peace and safety; my vengeance shall therefore take its course. I rely not on oracles of heaven or hell; but I have pronounced the doom of my enemies; and though you now see me a prisoner, tremble, haughty Scot, at the resentment which lies in this head and heart. This arm perhaps needs not the armies of Edward to pierce you in your boast!”
He left the room as he spoke; and Lord Mar, shaking his venerable head as he disappeared, said to himself: “Impotent rage of passion and of youth, I pity and forgive you.”
It was not, therefore, so extraordinary that De Valence, when he saw Wallace descending the Ochil hills with the flying banners of new victories, should break into curses of his fortune, and swear inwardly the most determined revenge.
Fuel was added to this fire at sunset, when the almost measureless defiles of prisoners, marshaled before the ramparts of Stirling, and taking the usual oath to Wallace, met his view.
“To-morrow we quit these dishonoring wall,” cried he to himself: “but ere I leave them, if there be power in gold, or strength in my arm, he shall die!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53