Wallace was yet recounting the particulars of his royal visit to Bruce (who had anxiously watched his return), when one of the queen’s attendants appeared; and presenting him with a silk handkerchief curiously coiled up, said, that he brought it from her majesty; who supposed it must be his, as she found it in the room where he had been playing the harp. Wallace was going to say that it did not belong to him, when Bruce gave him a look which directed him to take the handkerchief. He obeyed, without a word, and the boy withdrew.
Bruce smiled. “There is more in that handkerchief than silk, my friend! Queens send not these embassies on trifling errands.” While Bruce spoke, Wallace unwrapped it. “I told you so!” cried the prince, with a frank archness playing over his before pensive features, and pointing to a slip of emblazoned vellum, which became unfolded. “Shall I look aside while you peruse it?”
“Look on it, my dear prince,” replied Wallace; “for in trifles, as well as in things of moment, I would hold no reserves with you.”
The vellum was then opened, and these words presented themselves:
“Presume not on condescension. This injunction may be necessary for the noble lady who was present at our interview tells me the men of this island are very presuming. Redeem the character of your countrymen, and transgress not on a courtesy that only means to say, I did not leave you this morning so abruptly out of unkindness. I write this, because having the countess ever with me, I shall not even dare to whisper it in her presence. Be always faithful, and respectful, minstrel, and you shall ever find an indulgent mistress.
“A page will call you when your attendance is desired.”
Wallace and Bruce looked on each other. Bruce first spoke.
“Had you vanity, my friend, this letter, from so lovely and innocent a creature, might be a gratification; but in your case, the sentiment it breathes is full of danger. She knows not the secret power that impelled her to write this, but we do; and I fear it will point an attention to you which may produce effects ruinous to our projects.”
“Then,” answered Wallace, “our alternative is to escape it by getting away this very night. And, as you persevere in your resolution not to enter Scotland unaccompanied by me, and will share my attempt to rescue Lady Helen Mar, we must direct our course immediately to the Continent.”
“Yes, instantly, and securely, too, under the disguise of priests!” returned Bruce. “I have in my possession the wardrobe of the confessor who followed my father’s fortunes, and who, on his death, retired into the abbey which contains his remains.”
It was then settled between the friends, that when it became dark they should dress themselves in the confessor’s robes, and by means of the queen’s signet, which she had given to Wallace at the banquet, pass the guard as priests who had entered by some other gate, and were returned from shriving her majesty. Once without the city, they could make a swift progress southward to the nearest seaport, and there safely embark for France; for they were well aware that the moment they were missed suspicion would direct pursuit toward the Scottish border.
In these arrangements, and planning their future movements relative to the rescue of Lady Helen, they passed several hours, and were only interrupted by the arrival of a lute from the queen for her minstrel to tune. Wallace obeyed; and returning it by the page who brought it, congratulated himself that it was not accompanied by any new summons. Then continuing his discourse with Bruce on the past, present, and to come, their souls grew more closely entwined as they more intimately recognized their kindred natures; and time moved on, unmarked, till the shadows of evening deepened into night.
“Now is our hour,” cried Bruce, starting on his feet; “go you into that room, and array yourself in the confessor’s robes, while I call my servants to dispense with their usual nightly attendance.”
With determination and hope, Wallace gladly obeyed. In that very same instant the Earl of Gloucester suddenly entered; and, looking round the room with a disturbed countenance, abruptly said:
“Where is the minstrel?”
“Why?” answered Bruce, with an alarm which he vainly tried to prevent appearing on his face. Gloucester advanced close to him.
“Is any one within hearing?”
“Then,” replied the earl, “his life is in danger. He is suspected to be not what he seems; and I am sorry to add, to stand in favor with the queen, of a nature to incur his mortal punishment.”
Bruce was so confounded with this stoppage of all their plans, and at the imminent peril of Wallace, that he could not speak. Gloucester proceeded:
“My dear Bruce, from the circumstance of his being with you, I cannot but suppose that you know more than you think proper to disclose. Whoever he may be, whether he came from France, or really from Scotland, as he says, his life is now forfeited. And that, by attempting to screen him, you may not seem to share his imputed guilt, I come to warn you of this discovery. A double guard is set around the keep; so no visible means are left for his escape.”
“Then what will become of him?” exclaimed Bruce, forgetting all caution in dismay for his friend. “Am I to see the bravest of men, the savior of my country, butchered before my eyes by a tyrant? I may die, Gloucester, in his defense, but I will never surrender him to his enemy!”
Gloucester stood aghast at this disclosure. He came to accuse the friend of Bruce, that Bruce might be prepared to clear himself of connivance with so treasonable a crime; but now that he found this friend to be Wallace, the preserver of his own life, the restorer of his honor at Berwick, he immediately resolved to give him freedom.
“Bruce,” cried he, “when I recollect the figure and deportment of this minstrel, I am surprised that, in despite of his disguise, I did not recognize the invincible Regent of Scotland; but now I know him, he shall find that generosity is not confined to his own breast. Give me your word that you will not stimulate suspicion by remonstrating with Edward against your own arrest till the court leaves Durham, and I will instantly find a way to conduct your friend in safety from the castle.”
“I pledge you my word of honor,” cried Bruce; “release but him, and, if you demand it of me, I would die in chains.”
“He saved me at Berwick,” replied Gloucester, “and I am anxious to repay the debt. If he be near, explain what has happened in as few words as possible, for we must not delay a moment. I left a council with the enraged king, settling what horrible death was to be his punishment.”
“When he is safe,” answered Bruce, “I will attest his innocence to you; meanwhile, rely on my faith, that you are giving liberty to a guiltless man.”
Bruce hastened to Wallace, who had just completed his disguise. He briefly related what had passed, and received for answer, that he would not leave his prince to the revenge of the tyrant. But Bruce, urging that the escape of the one could alone secure that of the other, implored him not to persist in refusing his offered safety, but to make direct for Normandy.
“I will join you at Rouen; and thence we can proceed to Guienne,” added he. “The hour the court leaves Durham is that of my escape; and when free, what shall divide me from you and our enterprise!”
Wallace had hardly assented, when a tumultuous noise broke the silence of the courtyard; the great iron doors of the keep were thrown back on their hinges, and the clangor of arms, with many voices, resounded in the hall. Thinking all was lost, with a cry of despair, Bruce drew his sword, and threw himself before his friend. At that instant Gloucester entered the room. “They are quicker than I thought!” cried he; “but follow me. Bruce, remain where you are: sheathe your sword — be bold; deny you know anything of the minstrel, and all will be well.” As he spoke, the feet of them who were come to seize Wallace already sounded in the adjoining apartment. Gloucester grasped the Scottish hero by the hand, turned into a short gallery, and, plucking the broad shaft of a cedar pilaster from under its capital, let himself and his companion into a passage within the wall of the building. The ponderous beam closed after them into its former situation; and the silent pair descended, by a long flight of stone steps, to a square dungeon without any visible outlet; but the earl found one, by raising a flat stone marked by an elevated cross; and again they penetrated lower into the bosom of the earth by a gradually declining path till they stopped on a subterranean level ground. “This vaulted passage,” said Gloucester, “reaches, in a direct line, to Fincklay Abbey.46 A particular circumstance constrained my uncle, the then abbot of that monastery, to discover it to me, ten years ago. He told me, that to none but the bishops of Durham and the abbots of Fincklay was the secret of its existence revealed. Since my coming hither this time (which was to escort the young queen — not to bear arms against Scotland), I one day took it into my head to revisit this recess; and, happily for the gratitude I owe to you, I found all as I had left it in my uncle’s lifetime. But, for the sake of my honor with Edward, whose wrath would fall upon me in most fearful shapes should he ever know that I delivered his vanquisher out of his hands, I must enjoin you to secrecy. Though the enemy of my king’s ambition, you are the friend of mankind. You were my benefactor, noble Wallace; and I should deserve the rack, could I suffer one hair of your head to fall with violence to the ground.”
46 The remains of this curious subterranean passage are yet to be seen; but parts of them are now broken in upon by water, and therefore the communication between Durham and Fincklay is now cut off.
With answering frankness, Wallace declared his sense of the earl’s generosity; and earnestly commended the young Bruce to his watchful friendship. “The brave impetuosity of his mind,” continued he, “at times may overthrow his prudence, and leave him exposed to dangers which a little virtuous caution might avoid. Dissimulation is a baseness I should shudder at seeing him practice; but when the flood of indignation swells his bosom, then tell him, that I conjure him, on the life of his dearest wishes, to be silent! The storm which threatens must blow over, and the power which guides through perils those who trust in it, will ordain that we shall meet again!”
Gloucester replied, “What you say I will repeat to Bruce. I am too sensible that my royal father-in-law has trampled on his rights; and should I ever see him restored to the throne of his ancestors, I could not but acknowledge the hand of Heaven in the event. Far would it have been from me to have bound him to remain a prisoner during Edward’s sojourn at Durham, had I not been certain that your escape and his together would now give birth to a plausible argument in the minds of my enemies; and, grounding their suspicions on my acknowledged attachment to Bruce, the king might have been persuaded to believe me unfaithful to his interests. The result would be my disgrace, and a broken heart to her who has raised me by her generous love from the humbler ranks of nobility to that of a prince, and her husband.”
Gloucester then informed Wallace that about two hours before he came to alarm Bruce for his safety on this occasion, he was summoned by Edward to attend him immediately. When he obeyed, he found Soulis standing by the royal couch, and his majesty talking with vehemence. At sight of Gloucester he beckoned him to advance, and striking his hand fiercely on a letter he held, he exclaimed:
“Here, my son, behold the record of your father’s shame! — of a King of England dishonored by a slave!”
As he spoke he dashed it from him. Soulis answered, smiling:
“Not a slave, my lord and king! can you not see, through the ill adapted disguise, the figure and mien of nobility? He is some foreign lover of your bride, come —”
“Enough!” interrupted the king; “I know I am dishonored; but the villain shall die. Read the letter, Gloucester, and say what tortures shall stamp my vengeance!”
Gloucester opened the vellum, and read, in the queen’s hand:
“Gentle minstrel! my lady countess tells me I must not see you again. Were you old or ugly, as most bards are, I might, she says; but being young, it is not for a queen to smile upon one of your calling. She bade me remember, that when I smiled, you smiled too; and that you asked me questions unbecoming your degree. Pray do not do this any more; though I see no harm in it; alas! I used to smile as I liked when I was in France. Oh, if it were not for those I love best, who are now in England, I wish I were there again! and you would go with me, gentle minstrel, would you not? And you would teach me to sing so sweetly! I would then never talk with you, but would always speak in song; how pretty that would be! and then we should be from under the eyes of this harsh countess. My ladies in France would let you come in and stay as long with me as I pleased. But as I cannot go back again, I will make myself happy here in spite of the countess, who rules me more as if she were my stepmother than I hers; but then to be sure she is a few years older.
“I will see you this evening, and your sweet harp shall sing all my heart-aches to sleep. My French lady of honor will conduct you secretly to my apartments. I am sure you are too honest even to guess at what the countess thinks you might fancy when I smile on you. But, gentle minstrel, presume not, and you shall ever find an indulgent mistress in M—
“P.S. At the last vespers to-night, my page shall come for you.”
Gloucester knew the queen’s handwriting; and not being able to contradict that this letter was hers, he inquired how it came into his majesty’s hands.
“I found it,” replied Soulis, “in crossing the courtyard; it lay on the ground, where, doubtless, it had been accidentally dropped by the queen’s messenger.”
Gloucester, wishing to extenuate for the queen’s sake, whose youth and inexperience he pitied, affirmed that, from the simplicity with which the note was written, from her innocent references to the minstrel’s profession, he could not suppose that she addressed him in any other character.
“If he be only a base itinerant harper,” replied the king, “the deeper is my disgrace; for, if a passion of another king than music be not portrayed in every word of this artful letter, I never read a woman’s heart!”
The king continued to comment on the fatal scroll with the lynx-eye of jealousy, loading her name with every opprobrium. Gloucester inwardly thanked Heaven that none other than Soulis and himself were present to hear Edward fasten such foul dishonor on his queen. The generous earl could not find other arguments to assuage the mountain ire of her husband. She might be innocent of actual guilt, or indeed of being aware of more than a queen’s usual interest in a poor wandering minstrel was, as the king said, in every line. Gloucester remaining silent, Edward believed him convinced of the queen’s crime; and being too wrathful to think of caution, he sent for the bishop and others of his lords, and when they entered, vented to them also his injury and indignation. Many were not inclined to be of the same opinion with their sovereign; some thought with Gloucester, others deemed the letter altogether a forgery; and a few adopted the severer inferences of her husband; but all united (even those determined to spare the queen) in recommending an immediate apprehension and private execution of the minstrel.
“It is not fit,” cried Soulis, “that a man who has ever been suspected of invading our monarch’s honor, should live another hour.”
This sanguinary sentence was acceded to, and with as little remorse by the whole assembly as if they had merely condemned a tree to the ax. Such is the carelessness with which the generality of arbitrary assemblies decide on the fate of a fellow mortal! Earl Percy, who gave his vote for the death of the minstrel more from this culpable inconsideration than that thirst of blood which stimulated the voices of Soulis and the Cummins, proposed — as he believed the queen innocent — that honor should be examined relative to the circumstances mentioned in the letter.
The king immediately ordered their attendance.
The royal Jane of Acre appeared at the first summons, and spoke with an air of truth and freedom from alarm which convinced every candid ear of the innocence of the queen. Her testimony was, that she believed the minstrel to be other than he seemed; but she was certain, from the conversations which the queen had held with her after the bishop’s feast, that it was at this very feast she had first seen him, and that she was ignorant of his real rank. On being questioned by the bishop, the countess acknowledged that her majesty had praised his figure as well as his singing; “yet not more,” added she, “than she afterward did to the king when she awakened his curiosity to send for him.” Her highness continued to reply to the interrogatories put to her, by saying, that it was in the king’s presence she herself first saw the minstrel; and then she thought his demeanor much above his situation; but, when he accompanied the queen and herself into her majesty’s apartments, she had then an opportunity to observe him narrowly, as the queen engaged him in conversation; and by his answers, questions, and easy, yet respectful deportment, she became convinced he was not what he appeared.
“And why, Jane,” asked the king, “did you not impart these suspicions to your husband or to me?”
“Because,” replied she, “remembering that my interference on a certain public occasion brought my late husband, Clare, under your majesty’s displeasure; on my marriage with Monthermer, I made a solemn vow before my confessor never to offend in the like manner. And besides, the countenance of this stranger was so ingenious, and his sentiments so natural and honorable, I could not suspect he came on any disloyal errand.”
“Lady,” observed one of the elder lords, “if you thought so well of the queen and of this man, why did you caution her against his smiles, and deem it necessary to persuade her not to see him again?”
The countess blushed at this question, but replied, “Because I saw the minstrel was a gentleman. He possessed a noble figure, and a handsome face in spite of his Egyptian skin. Like most young gentlemen, he might be conscious of these advantages, and attribute the artless approbation, the innocent smiles of my gracious queen, to a source more flattering to his vanity. I have known many lords, not far from your majesty, make similar mistakes on as little grounds,” added she, looking disdainfully toward some of the younger nobles; “and, therefore, to prevent such insolence, I desired his final dismission.”
“Thank you, my dear Jane,” replied the king; “you almost persuade me of Margaret’s innocence.”
“Believe it, sire!” cried she with animation; “whatever romantic thoughtlessness her youth and inexperience may have led her into, I pledge my life on her purity.”
“First, let us hear what that French woman has to say to the assignation,” exclaimed Soulis, whose polluted heart could not suppose the existence of true purity, and whose cruel disposition exulted in torturing and death; “question her, and then her majesty may have full acquittal.”
Again the brow of Edward was overcast. The fiends of jealously once more tugged at his heart; and ordering the Countess of Gloucester to withdraw he commanded the Baroness de Pontoise to be brought into his presence.
When she saw the king’s threatening looks, and beheld the fearful expression which shot from every surrounding countenance, she shrunk with terror. Long backneyed in secret gallantries, the same inward whisper which had proclaimed to Soulis that the queen was guilty, induced her to believe that she had been the confidante of an illicit passion; and therefore, though she knew nothing really bad of her unhappy mistress, yet, fancying that she did, she stood before the royal tribunal with the air and aspect of a culprit.
“Repeat to me,” demanded the king, “or answer it with your head, all that you know of Queen Margaret’s intimacy with the man who calls himself a minstrel.”
At these words, which were delivered in a tone that seemed the sentence of death, the French woman fell on her knees, and in a burst of terror exclaimed, “Sire, I will reveal all if your majesty will grant me pardon for having too faithfully served my mistress!”
“Speak! speak!” cried the king, with desperate impatience. “I swear to pardon you, even if you have joined in a conspiracy against my life; but speak the truth, and all the truth, that judgment, without mercy, may fall on the guilty heads!”
“Then I obey,” answered the baroness.
“Foul betrayer!” half-exclaimed Gloucester, turning disappointed away. “O! what it is to be vile, and to trust the vile! But virtue will not be auxiliary to vice — and so wickedness falls by its own agents.”
The baroness, raised from her kneeling position by Soulis, began:
“The only time I ever heard of, or saw this man, to my knowledge, was when he was brought to play before my lady at the bishop’s banquet. I did not much observe him, being engaged in conversation at the other end of the room; so I cannot say, whether I might not have seen him in France; for many noble lords adored the Princess Margaret, though she appeared to frown upon them all. But I must confess, when I attended her majesty’s disrobing after the feast, she put to me so many questions about what I thought of the minstrel who had sung so divinely, that I began to think her admiration too great to have been awakened by a mere song. And then she asked me, if a king could have a nobler air than he had; and she laughed, and said she would send your majesty to school to learn of him.”
“Damnable traitress!” exclaimed the king.
The baroness paused, and retreated before the sudden fury which flashed from his eyes.
“Go on!” cried he; “hide neither word nor circumstance, that my vengeance may lose nothing of its aim!”
“Her majesty then talked of his beautiful eyes; so blue, she said, so tender, yet proud in their looks; and only a minstrel! ‘De Pontoise,’ added she, ‘can you explain that?’ I being rather, perhaps, too well learned in the idle tales of our troubadours, heedlessly answered: ‘Perhaps he is some king in disguise, just come to look at your majesty’s charms, and go away again!’ She laughed much at this conceit; said he must be one of Pharaoh’s race then, and that had he not such white teeth, his complexion would be intolerable. Being pleased to see her majesty in such spirits, and thinking no ill, I sportively answered, ‘I read once of a certain Spanish lover, who went to the court of Tunis to carry off the king’s daughter; and he had so black a face, that none suspected him to be other than the Moorish Prince of Granada; when lo! one day in a pleasure-party on the sea, he fell overboard, and came up with the fairest face in the world, and presently acknowledged himself to be the Christian King of Castile.’ The queen laughed at this story, but not answering me, went to bed. Next morning, when I entered her chamber, she received me with even more gayety, and putting aside my coiffure, said, ‘Let me see if I can find the devil’s mark here!’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, ‘does your majesty take me for a witch?’ ‘Exactly so,’ she replied; ‘for a little sprite told me last night that all you told me was true.’ And then she began to tell me with many smiles, that she had dreamed the minstrel was the very Prince of Portugal, whom, unseen, she had refused for the King of England; and that he gave her a harp set with jewels. She then went to your majesty, and I saw no more of her till she sent for me late in the evening. She seemed very angry. ‘You are faithful,’ said she to me, ‘and you know me. De Pontoise; you know me too proud to degrade myself, and too highminded to submit to tyranny. The Countess of Gloucester, with persuasions too like commands, will not allow me to see the minstrel any more.’ She then declared her determination that she would see him; that she would feign herself sick, and he should come and sing to her when she was alone; and that she was sure he was too modest to presume on her condescension. I said something to dissuade her, but she overruled me; and, shame to myself, I consented to assist her. She embraced me, and gave me a letter to convey to him, which I did, by slipping it beneath the ornaments of the handle of her lute, which I sent as an excuse for the minstrel to tune. It was to acquaint him with her intentions, and this night he was to have visited her apartment!”
During this recital the king sat with compressed lips listening, but with a countenance proclaiming the collecting tempest within — changing to livid paleness or portentous fire, at almost every sentence. On mentioning the letter, he clinched his hand, as if then he grasped the thunderbolt. The lords immediately apprehended that this was the letter which Soulis found.
“And is this all you know of the affair?” inquired Percy, seeing that she made a pause. “And enough, too?” cried Soulis, “to blast the most vaunted chastity in Christendom.”
“Take the woman hence,” cried the king, in a burst of wrath, that gave his voice a preternatural force, which yet resounded from the vaulted roof, while he added —“Never let me see her traitor face again!” The baroness withdrew in terror; and Edward, calling Sir Piers Gaveston, commanded him to place himself at the head of a double guard, and go in person to bring the object of his officious introduction to meet the punishment due to his crime. “For,” cried the king, “be he prince or peasant, I will see him hanged before my eyes, and then return his wanton paramour, branded with infamy, to her disgraced family!”
Soulis now suggested that, as the delinquent was to be found with Bruce, most likely that young nobleman was privy to his designs. “We shall see to him hereafter,” replied the king; “meanwhile, look that I am obeyed.”
The moment this order passed the king’s lips, Gloucester, now not doubting the queen’s guilt, hastened to warn Bruce of what had occurred, that he might separate himself from the crime of a man who appeared to have been under his protection. But when he found that the accused was no other than the universally feared, universally beloved, and generous Wallace, all other considerations were lost in the desire of delivering him from the impending danger. He knew the means, and he did not hesitate to employ them.
During the recital of this narrative, Gloucester narrowly observed the auditor, and the ingenuous bursts of his indignation, and the horror he evinced at the crime he was suspected of having committed, the earl, while more fully convinced of his innocence, easily conceived how the queen’s sentiments for him might have gone no further than a childish admiration, very pardonable in a guileless creature hardly more than sixteen.
“See,” cried Wallace, “the power which lies with the describer of actions! The chaste mind of your countess saw nothing in the conduct of the queen but thoughtless simplicity. The contaminated heart of the Baroness de Pontoise descried passion in every word, wantonness in every movement; and, judging of her mistress by herself, she has wrought this mighty ruin. How, then, does it behove virtue to admit the virtuous only to her intimacy: association with the vicious makes her to be seen in their colors! Impress your king with this self-evident conclusion; and were it not for endangering the safety of Bruce, the hope of my country, I myself would return and stake my life on proving the innocence of the Queen of England. But if a letter, with my word of honor, could convince the king —”
“I accept the offer,” interrupted Gloucester, “I am too warmly the friend of Bruce — too truly grateful to you — to betray either into danger; but from Sunderland, whither I recommend you to go, and there embark for France, write the declaration you mention, and inclose it to me. I can contrive that the king shall have your letter without suspecting by what channel; and then, I trust, all will be well.”
During this discourse, they passed on through the vaulted passage, till, arriving at a wooden crucifix which marked the boundary of the domain of Durham, Gloucester stopped.
“I must not go further. Should I prolong my stay from the castle during the search for you, suspicion may be awakened. You must therefore proceed alone. Go straight forward, and at the extremity of the vault you will find a flag stone, surmounted like the one by which we descended; raise it, and it will let you into the cemetery of the Abbey of Fincklay. One end of that burying-place is always open to the east. Thence you will emerge to the open world; and may it in future, noble Wallace, ever treat you according to your unequaled merits. Farewell!”
The earl turned to retrace his steps, and Wallace pursued his way through the rayless darkness toward the Fincklay extremity of the vault.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12