Many chieftains from the north had come to Stirling, to be near intelligence from the borders. They were aware that this meeting between Wallace and Edward must be the crisis of their fate. The few who remained in the citadel, of those who had borne the brunt of the opening of this glorious revolution for their country, were full of sanguine expectations. They had seen the prowess of their leader, they had shared the glory of his destiny, and they feared not that Edward would deprive him of one ray. But they who, at their utmost wilds of Highlands, had only heard his fame; though they had afterward seen him amongst themselves, transforming the mountain-savage into a civilized man and disciplined soldier; though they had felt the effects of his military successes; yet they doubted how his fortunes might stand the shock of Edward’s happy star. The lords whom he had released from the Southron prisons were all of the same apprehensive opinion; for they knew what numbers Edward could bring against the Scottish power, and how hitherto unrivaled was his skill in the field. “Now,” thought Lord Badenoch, “will this brave Scot find the difference between fighting with the officers of a king and a king himself, contending for what he determines shall be a part of his dominions!” Full of this idea, and resolving never to fall into the hands of Edward again (for the conduct of Wallace had made the earl ashamed of his long submission to the usurpation of rights to which he had a claim), he kept a vessel in readiness at the mouth of the Forth, to take him, as soon as the news of the regent’s defeat should arrive, far from the sad consequences, to a quiet asylum in France.
The meditations of Athol, Buchan, and March, were of a different tendency. It was their design, on the earliest intimation of such intelligence, to set forth, and be the first to throw themselves at the feet of Edward, and acknowledge him their sovereign. Thus, with various projects in their heads (which none but the three last breathed to each other), were several hundred expecting chiefs assembled round the Earl of Mar; when Edwin Ruthven, glowing with all the effulgence of his general’s glory, and his own, rushed into the hall; and throwing the royal standard of England on the ground, exclaimed, “There lies the supremacy of King Edward!”
Every man started to his feet. “You do not mean,” cried Athol, “that King Edward has been beaten?”
“He has been beaten, and driven off the field!” returned Edwin. “These dispatches,” added he, laying them on the table before his uncle, “will relate every particular. A hard battle our regent fought, for our enemies were numberless; but a thousand good angels were his allies, and Edward himself fled. I saw the king, after he had thrice rallied his troops and brought them to the charge, at last turn and fly. It was at that moment I wounded his standard-bearer, and seized this dragon.”
“Thou art worthy of thy general, brave Ruthven!” cried Badenoch to Edwin. “James,” added he, addressing his eldest son, who had just arrived from France, “what is left to us to show ourselves also of Scottish blood? Heaven has given him all!”
Lord Mar, who had stood in speechless gratitude, opened the dispatches; and finding a circumstantial narrative of the battle, with accounts of the previous embassies, he read them aloud. Their contents excited a variety of emotions. When the nobles heard that Edward had offered Wallace the crown; when they found that by vanquishing that powerful monarch, he had subdued even the soul of the man who had hitherto held them all in awe; though in the same breath, they read that their regent had refused royalty; and was now, as a servant of the people, preparing to strengthen their borders; yet the most extravagant suspicions awoke in almost every breast. The eagle flight of his glory, seemed to have raised him so far above their heads, so beyond their power to restrain or to elevate him, that an envy, dark as Erebus — a jealousy which at once annihilated every grateful sentiment, every personal regard — passed like electricity from heart to heart. The eye, turning from one to the other, explained what no lip dared utter. A dead silence reigned, while the demon of hatred was taking possession of almost every beast; and none but the Lords Mar, Badenoch, and Loch-awe, escaped the black contagion.
When the meeting broke up, Lord Mar placed himself at the head of the officers of the garrison, and with a herald holding the banner of Edward beneath the colors of Scotland, rode forth to proclaim to the country the decisive victory of its regent. Badenoch and Loch-awe left the hall, to hasten with the tidings to Snawdoun. The rest of the chiefs dispersed. But as if actuated by one spirit, they were seen wandering about the outskirts of the town, where they soon drew together in groups, and whispered among themselves these and similar statements: “He refused the crown offered to him in the field by the people; he rejected it from Edward, because he would reign uncontrolled. He will now seize it as a conqueror, and we shall have an upstart’s foot upon our necks. If we are to be slaves, let us have a tyrant of our own choosing.”
As the trumpets before Lord Mar blew the loud acclaim of triumph, Athol said to Buchan, “Cousin, that is but the forerunner of what we shall hear to announce the usurpation of this Wallace. And shall we sit tamely by, and have our birthright wrested from us by a man of yesterday? No; if the race of Alexander be not to occupy the throne, let us not hesitate between the monarch of a mighty nation and a low-born tyrant, between him who will at least gild our chains with chivalric honors, and an upstart, whose domination must be as stern as debasing!”
Murmurings such as these, passing from chief to chief, descended to the minor chieftains, who held lands in fee of those more sovereign lords. Petty interests extinguished gratitude for general benefits; and by secret meetings, at the heads of which were Athol, Buchan, and March, a conspiracy was formed to overset the power of Wallace. They were to invite Edward once more to take possession of the kingdom; and meanwhile, to accomplish this with certainty, each chief was to assume a pre-eminent zeal for the regent. March was to persuade Wallace to send him to Dunbar as governor of the Lothiaus, to hold the refractory Soulis in check; and to divide the public cares of Lord Dundaff; who, indeed, found Berwick a sufficient charge for his age and comparative inactivity. “Then,” cried the false Cospatrick,40 “when I am fixed at Dunbar, Edward may come round from Newcastle to that port; and, by your management, he must march unmolested to Stirling, and seize the usurper on his throne.”
40 The name by which Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March, was familiarly called.
Such suggestions met with full approval from these dark incendiaries; and as their meetings were usually held at night, they walked forth in the day with cheerful countenances, and joined the general rejoicing.
They feared to hint even a word of their intentions to Lord Badenoch; for, on Buchan having expressed some discontent to him, at the homage that was paid to a man so much their inferior, his answer was, “Had we acted worthy of our birth, Sir William Wallace never could have had the opportunity to rise upon our disgrace. But as it is, we must submit, or bow to treachery instead of virtue.” This reply determined them to keep their proceedings secret from him, and also from Lady Mar; for both Lord Buchan and Lord Athol had, at different times, listened to the fond dreams of her love and ambition. They had flattered her with entering into her designs. Athol gloomily affected acquiescence, that he might render himself master of all that was in her mind, and, perhaps, in that of her lover; for he did not doubt that Wallace was as guilty as her wishes would have made him. And Buchan, ever ready to yield to the persuasions of woman, was not likely to refuse, when his fair cousin promised to reward him with all the pleasures of the gayest court in Europe. For, indeed, both lords had conceived, from the evident failing state of her veteran husband, in consequence of the unhealing condition of one of his wounds, that it might not be long before this visionary game would be thrown into her hands.
Thus were they situated, when the news of Wallace’s decisive victory, distancing all their means to raise him who was now at the pinnacle of power, determined the dubious to become at once his mortal enemies. Lord Badenoch had listened with a different temper to the first breathings of Lady Mar on her favorite subject. He told her, if the nation chose to make their benefactor king, he should not oppose it; because he thought that none of the blood royal deserved to wear the crown which they had all consented to hold in fee of Edward; yet he would never promote by intrigue an election which must rob his own posterity of their inheritance. But when she gave hints of her becoming one day the wife of Wallace, he turned on her with a frown. “Cousin,” said he, “beware how you allow so guilty an idea to take possession of your heart! It is the parent of dishonor and death. And did I think that Sir William Wallace were capable of sharing your wishes, I would be the first to abandon his standard. But I believe him too virtuous to look on a married woman with the eyes of passion; and that he holds the houses of Mar and Cummin in too high a respect to breathe an illicit sigh in the ear of my kinswoman.”
Despairing of making the impression she desired on the mind of this severe relative, Lady Mar spoke to him no more on the subject. And Lord Badenoch, ignorant that she had imparted her criminal project to his brother and cousin, believed that his reproof had performed her cure. Thus flattering himself, he made no hesitations to be the first who should go to Snawdoun, to communicate to her the brilliant dispatches of the regent, and to declare the freedom of Scotland to be now almost secured. He and Lord Loch-awe set forth; but they had been some time preceded by Edwin.
The moment the countess heard the name of her nephew announced, she made a sign for her ladies to withdraw, and starting forward at his entrance, “Speak!” cried she; “tell me, Edwin, is the regent still a conqueror?”
“Where are my mother and Helen,” replied he, “to share my tidings?”
“Then they are good!” exclaimed lady mar, with one of her bewitching smiles. “Ah! you sly one, like your chief, you know your power!”
“And like him I exercise it,” replied he, gayly; “therefore, to keep your ladyship no longer in suspense, here is a letter from the regent himself.” He presented it as he spoke, and she, catching it from him, turned round, and pressing it rapturously to her lips (it being the first she had ever received from him), eagerly ran over its brief contents. While reperusing it — for she could not tear her eyes from the beloved characters — Lady Ruthven and Helen entered the room. The former hastened forward, the latter trembled as she moved, for she did not yet know the information which her cousin brought. But the first glance of his face told her all was safe, and as he broke from his mother’s embrace, to clasp Helen in his arms, she fell upon his neck, and, with a shower of tears, whispered, “Wallace lives? Is well?”
“As you would wish him,” rewhispered he, “and with Edward at his feet.”
“Thank God, thank God!”
While she spoke, Lady Ruthven exclaimed: “But how is our regent? Speak, Edwin! How is the delight of all hearts?”
“Still the Lord of Scotland,” answered he; “the invincible dictator of her enemies! The puissant Edward has acknowledged the power of Sir William Wallace, and after being beaten on the plain of Stanmore, is now making the best of his way toward his own capital.”
Lady Mar again and again pressed the cold letter of Wallace to her burning bosom. “The regent does not mention these matters in his letter to me,” said she, casting an exulting glance over the glowing face of Helen. But Helen did not notice it; she was listening to Edwin, who, with joyous animation, related every particular that had befallen Wallace from the time of his rejoining him to that very moment. The countess heard all with complacency, till he mentioned the issue of the conference with Edward’s first embassadors. “Fool!” exclaimed she to herself, “to throw away the golden opportunity, that may never return!” Not observing her disturbance, Edwin went on with his narrative; every word of which spread the eloquent countenance of Helen with admiration and joy.
Since her heroic heart had wrung from it all selfish wishes with regard to Wallace, she allowed herself to openly rejoice in his success, and to look up unabashed when the resplendent glories of his character were brought before her. None but Edwin made her feel her exclusion from her soul’s only home, by dwelling on his gentle virtues; by portraying the exquisite tenderness of his nature, which seemed to enfold the objects of his love in his heart of hearts. When Helen thought on these discourses she would sigh, but it was a sigh of resignation, and she loved to meditate on the words which Edwin had carelessly spoken — that “she made herself a nun for Wallace!” “And so I will,” said she to herself; “and that resolution stills every wild emotion. All is innocence in heaven, Wallace! You will there read my soul, and love me as a sister.”
In such a frame of mind did she listen to the relation of Edwin; did her animated eye welcome the entrance of Badenoch and Loch-awe, and their enthusiastic encomiums on the lord of her heart. Then sounded the trumpet; and the herald’s voice in the streets proclaimed the victory of the regent. Lady mar rushed to the window, as if there she would see himself. Lady Ruthven followed, and as the acclamations of the people echoed through the air, Helen pressed the precious cross of Wallace to her bosom and hastily left the room to enjoy the rapture of her thoughts in the blessed retirement of her own oratory.
In the course of a few days, after the promulgation of all this happy intelligence, it was announced that the regent was on his return to Stirling. Lady Mar was not so inebriated with her vain hopes as to forget that Helen might traverse the dearest of them, should she again present herself to its object. She therefore hastened to her when the time of his expected arrival drew near; and putting on all the matron, affected to give her the counsel of a mother.
As all the noble families around Stirling would assemble to hail the victor’s return, the countess said, she came to advise her, in consideration of what had passed in the chapel before the regent’s departure, not to submit herself to the observation of so many eyes. Not suspecting the occult devices which worked in her stepmother’s heart, Helen meekly acquiesced, with the reply, “I shall obey.” But she inwardly thought, “I, who know the heroism of his soul, need not pageants nor acclamations of the multitude to tell me what he is. He is already too bring for my senses to support, and with his image pressing on my heart, it is mercy to let me shrink from his glorious presence.
The “obey” was sufficient for Lady Mar; she had gained her point. For though she did not seriously think (what she had affected to believe) that anything more had passed between Wallace and Helen than what they had openly declared, yet she could not but discern the harmony of their minds, and she feared that frequent intercourse might draw such sympathy to something dearer. She had understanding to perceive his virtues, but they found no answering qualities in her breast. The matchless beauty of his person, the penetrating tenderness of his manner, the splendor of his fame, the magnitude of his power, all united to set her impassioned and ambitious soul in a blaze. Each opposing duty seemed only a vapor through which she could easily pass to the goal of her desire. Hence art of every kind appeared to her to be no more than a means of acquiring the object most valuable to her in life. Education had not given her any principle by which she might have checked the headlong impulse of her now aroused passions. Brought up as a worshiped object, in the little court of her parents, at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, her father the Earl of Strathern, in Scotland, and her mother being a princess of Norway, whose dowry brought him the sovereignty of those isles, their daughter never knew any law but her own will, from her doting mother. And on the fearful loss of that mother, in a marine excursion of pleasure, by an accident oversetting the boat she was in, the bereaved daughter fell into such a despair, on her first pang of grief of any kind, that her similarly distracted father (whose little dominions happened then to be menaced by a descent of the Danes) sought a safe and cheering home for his only child, at the interesting age of seventeen, by sending her over sea, to the protecting care of his long-affianced friend, the Earl of Mar, and to his lovely countess, then an only three years’ wife with one infant daughter.
Though fond of admiration, the young Joanna of Orkney had held herself at too high a price, to bestow a thought on the crowd of rough sons of the surge (chiefs of the surrounding isles, who owned her father as lord), who daily adulated her charms with all the costliest trophies from their ocean-spoils. She trod past them, and by all the female beauties in her isle, with the step of an undisputed right to receive, and to despise. But when she crossed to the mainland, and found herself by the side of a woman almost as young as herself, and equally beautiful, though of a different mold, soft and retreating, while hers commanded and compelled; and that the husband of that woman, whose tender adoration hovered over her with a perpetual eye; that he, though of comparative veteran years, was handsomer than any man she had ever seen, and fraught with every noble grace to delight the female heart; she felt what she had never done before, that she had met a rival and an object worthy to subdue.
What Joanna began in mere excited vanity, jealous pride, and ambition of conquest, ended in a fatal attachment to the husband of her innocent and too confiding protectress. And he, alas! betrayed, first by her insidious wiles, and then by her overpowering and apparently restrainless demonstrations of devoted love, was so far won “from the propriety” of his noble heart, as to regard with a grateful admiration, as well as a manly pity, the beautiful victim of a passion he had so unwittingly raised. In the midst of these scenes, too often acted for his peace (though not for his honor and fidelity to his marriage vow), his beloved Isabella, the wife of his bosom, and till then the joy of his life, died in the pangs of a premature confinement, breathing her last sigh in the birth of a daughter. Scarcely was the countess consigned to her bed of earth, and even in the hour after the last duties were paid to her, whose closed tomb seemed to have left unto him “his house desolate!” when the heart-desperate Joanna rushed into the weeping husband’s presence, fearful of being now restrainingly reclaimed by her father, who had, only a short while before, intimated his intention to relieve his friends of a guardianship they had so partially fulfilled, and to send a vessel for his daughter, to bring her back to Kirkwall, there to be united in marriage to the brave native chieftain, whose singular prowess had preserved the island from a Danish yoke. Dreading this event, even while her siren tears mingled with those of the widowed Mar, she wrought on him, by lavish protestations of a devoted love for his two infant orphans (Helen, then a child of hardly two years, and the poor babe whose existence had just cost its mother her life)— also of a never-dying dedication of herself to that mother’s memory, and to the tenderest consolations of his own mourning spirit, she wrought upon him to rescue her from her now-threatened abhorrent fate, even to give her his vow — to wed her himself! In the weakness of an almost prostrated mind, under the load of conflicting anguish which then lay upon him — for now feeling his own culpable infirmity, in having suffered this dangerously flattering preference of him to have ever showed itself to him, without his having down his positive duty, by sending her home at once to her proper protector — in a sudden self-immolating agony of self-blame, he assented to her heart-wringing supplication, that as soon as propriety would permit, she should become his wife.
The Earl of Strathern arrived himself within the week, to condole with his friend, and to take back his daughter. But the scene he met, changed his ultimate purpose. Joanna declared, that were she to be carried away to marry any man save that friend, whose protection, during the last six months, had been to her as that of all relatives in one, she should expire on the threshold of Castle Braemer, for she never would cross it alive! And as the melancholy widower, but grateful lover, verified his vow to her, by repeating it to her father — within four months from that day, the Earl of Mar rejoined the Lady Joanna at Kirkwall, and brought her away as his bride. But to avoid exciting any invidious remarks, by immediately appearing in Scotland after such prompt nuptials, the new countess, wary in her triumph, easily persuaded her husband to take her for awhile to France; where, assuming a cold and majestic demeanor, which she thought becoming her royal descent, she resided several years. Thus changed, she returned to Scotland. She found the suspicion of any former indiscretion faded from all minds, and passing her time in the stately hospitalities of her lord’s castles, conducted herself with a matronly dignity, that made him the envy of all the married chieftains in his neighborhood. Soon after her arrival at Kildrumy on the River Dee, her then most favorite residence, she took the Lady Helen, the supplanted Isabella’s first-born daughter, from her grandfather at Thirlestance, where both children had been left on the departure of their father and his bride for France. Though hardly past the period of absolute childhood, the Lord Soulis at this time offered the young heiress of Mar his hand. The countess had then no interest in wishing the union; having not yet any children of her own, to make her jealous for their father’s love, she permitted her daughter-in-law to decide as she pleased. A second time he presented himself, and Lady Mar, still indifferent, allowed Helen a second time to refuse him. Years flew over the heads of the ill-joined pair; but while they whitened the raven locks of the earl, and withered his manly brow, the beauty of his countess blew into fuller luxuriance.
Yet it was her mirror aloe that told her she was fairer than all the ladies around, for none durst invade the serene decorum of her manners, with so light a whisper. Such was her state, when she first heard of the rise of Sir William Wallace, and when she thought that her husband might not only lose his life, but risk the forfeiture of his family honors, by joining him, for her own sake and for her children’s (having recently become the mother of twins), she had then determined, if it were necessary, to make the outlawed chief a sacrifice. To this end, she became willing to bribe Soulis’ participation, by the hand of Helen. She knew that her daughter-in-law abhorred his character, but love, indifference, or hatred, she now thought of little consequence in a marriage which brought sufficient antidotes in rank and wealth. She had never felt what real love was, and her personal vanity being no longer agitated by the raptures of a frantic rivalry, she now lived tranquilly with Lord Mar. What then was her astonishment, what the wild distraction of her heart, when she first beheld Sir William Wallace, and found in her breast for him, all which, in the moment of the most unreflecting intoxication, she had ever felt for her lord, with the addition of feelings and sentiments, the existence of which she had never believed, but now knew in all their force! Love for the first time penetrated through every nerve of her body, and possessed her whole mind. Taught a theory of virtue by her husband, she was startled at wishes which militated against his honor, but no principles being grounded in her mind, they soon disappeared before the furious charge of his passions, and after a short struggle she surrendered herself to the lawless power of a guilty and ambitious love. Wishes, hopes, and designs, which two years before, she would have shuddered at, as not only sinful but derogatory to female delicacy, she now embraced with ardor, and naught seemed dreadful to her but disappointment. The prolonged life of Lord Mar cost her many tears, for the master-passions of her nature, which she had laid asleep on her marriage with the earl, broke out with redoubled violence at the sight of Wallace. His was the most perfect of manly forms — and she loved; he was great — and her ambition blazed into an unextinguishable flame. These two strong passions, meeting in a breast weakened by the besetting sin of her youth, their rule was absolute, and neither virtue, honor, nor humanity could stand before them. Her husband was abhorred, her infant son forgotten, and nothing but Wallace and a crown could find a place in her thoughts.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59