The doors of the stronghold being undone, displayed a dungeon such as in those days held victims hopeless of escape, but in which the ingenious knave of modern times would scarcely have deigned to remain many hours. The huge rings by which the fetters were soldered together, and attached to the human body, were, when examined minutely, found to be clenched together by riveting so very thin, that when rubbed with corrosive acid, or patiently ground with a bit of sandstone, the hold of the fetters upon each other might easily be forced asunder, and the purpose of them entirely frustrated. The locks also, large, and apparently very strong, were so coarsely made, that an artist of small ingenuity could easily contrive to get the better of their fastenings upon the same principle. The daylight found its way to the subterranean dungeon only at noon, and through a passage which was purposely made tortuous, so as to exclude the rays of the sun, while it presented no obstacle to wind or rain. The doctrine that a prisoner was to be esteemed innocent until he should be found guilty by his peers, was not understood in those days of brute force, and he was only accommodated with a lamp or other alleviation of his misery, if his demeanour was quiet, and he appeared disposed to give his jailor no trouble by attempting to make his escape. Such a cell of confinement was that of Bertram, whose moderation of temper and patience had nevertheless procured for him such mitigations of his fate as the warder could grant. He was permitted to carry into his cell the old book, in the perusal of which he found an amusement of his solitude, together with writing materials, and such other helps towards spending his time as were consistent with his abode in the bosom of the rock, and the degree of information with which his minstrel craft had possessed him. He raised his head from the table as the knights entered, while the governor observed to the young knight:—
“As you seem to think yourself possessed of the secret of this prisoner, I leave it to you, Sir Aymer de Valence, to bring it to light in the manner which you shall judge most expedient. If the man or his son have suffered unnecessary hardship, it shall be my duty to make amends — which, I suppose, can be no very important matter.”
Bertram looked up, and fixed his eyes full upon the governor, but read nothing in his looks which indicated his being better acquainted than before with the secret of his imprisonment. Yet, upon turning his eye towards Sir Aymer, his countenance evidently lighted up, and the glance which passed between them was one of intelligence.
“You have my secret, then,” said he, “and you know who it is that passes under the name of Augustine?”
Sir Aymer exchanged with him a look of acquiescence; while the eyes of the governor glancing wildly from the prisoner to the knight of Valence, exclaimed —
“Sir Aymer de Valence, as you are belted knight and Christian man, as you have honour to preserve on earth, and a soul to rescue after death, I charge you to tell me the meaning of this mystery! It may be that you conceive, with truth, that you have subject of complaint against me; — If so, I will satisfy you as a knight may.”
The minstrel spoke at the same moment.
“I charge this knight,” he said, “by his vow of chivalry, that he do not divulge any secret belonging to a person of honour and of character, unless he has positive assurance that it is done entirely by that person’s own consent.”
“Let this note remove your scruples,” said Sir Aymer, putting the scroll into the hands of the minstrel; “and for you, Sir John de Walton, far from retaining the least feeling of any misunderstanding which may have existed between us, I am disposed entirely to bury it in forgetfulness, as having arisen out of a series of mistakes which no mortal could have comprehended. And do not be offended, my dear Sir John, when I protest, on my knightly faith, that I pity the pain which I think this scroll is likely to give you, and that if my utmost efforts can be of the least service to you in unravelling this tangled skein, I will contribute them with as much earnestness as ever I did aught in my life. This faithful minstrel will now see that he can have no difficulty in yielding up a secret, which I doubt not, but for the writing I have just put into his hands, he would have continued to keep with unshaken fidelity.”
Sir Aymer now placed in De Walton’s hand a note, in which he had, ere he left Saint Bride’s convent, signified his own interpretation, of the mystery; and the governor had scarcely read the name it contained, before the same name was pronounced aloud by Bertram, who, at the same moment, handed to the governor the scroll which he had received from the Knight of Valence.
The white plume which floated over the knight’s cap of maintenance, which was worn as a headpiece within doors, was not more pale in complexion than was the knight himself at the unexpected and surprising information, that the lady who was, in chivalrous phrase, empress of hia thoughts, and commander of his actions, and to whom, even in less fantastic times, he must have owed the deepest gratitude for the generous election which she had made in his favour, was the same person whom he had threatened with personal violence, and subjected to hardships and affronts which he would not willingly have bestowed even upon the meanest of her sex.
Yet Sir John de Walton seemed at first scarcely to comprehend the numerous ill consequences which might probably follow this unhappy complication of mistakes. He took the paper from the minstrel’s hand, and while his eye, assisted by the lamp, wandered over the characters without apparently their conveying any distinct impression to his understanding, De Valence even became alarmed that he was about to lose his faculties.
“For Heaven’s sake, sir,” he said, “be a man, and support with manly steadiness these unexpected occurrences — I would fain think they will reach to nothing else — which the wit of man could not have prevented. This fair lady, I would fain hope, cannot be much hurt or deeply offended by a train of circumstances, the natural consequence of your anxiety to discharge perfectly a duty upon which must depend the accomplishment of all the hopes she had permitted you to entertain. In God’s name, rouse up, sir; let it not be said, that an apprehended frown of a fair lady hath damped to such a degree the courage of the boldest knight in England; be what men have called you, ‘Walton the Unwavering;’ in Heaven’s name, let us at least see that the lady is indeed offended, before we conclude that she is irreconcilably so. To whose fault are we to ascribe the source of all these errors? Surely, with all due respect, to the caprice of the lady herself, which has engendered such a nest of mistakes. Think of it as a man, and as a soldier. Suppose that you yourself, or I, desirous of proving the fidelity of our sentinels, or for any other reason, good or bad, attempted to enter this Dangerous Castle of Douglas without giving the password to the warders, would we be entitled to blame those upon duty, if, not knowing our persons, they manfully refused us entrance, made us prisoners, and mishandled us while resisting our attempt, in terms of the orders which we ourselves had imposed upon them? What is there that makes a difference between such a sentinel and yourself, John de Walton, in this curious affair, which, by Heaven! would rather form a gay subject for the minstrelsy of this excellent bard, than the theme of a tragic lay? Come! look not thus, Sir John de Walton; be angry, if you will, with the lady who has committed such a piece of folly, or with me who have rode up and down nearly all night on a fool’s errand, and spoiled my best horse, in absolute uncertainty how I shall get another till my uncle of Pembroke and I shall be reconciled; or, lastly, if you desire to be totally absurd in your wrath, direct it against this worthy minstrel on account of his rare fidelity, and punish him for that for which he better deserves a chain of gold. Let passion out, if you will; but chase this desponding gloom from the brow of a man and a belted knight.”
Sir John de Walton made an effort to speak, and succeeded with some difficulty.
“Aymer de Valence,” he said, “in irritating a madman you do but sport with your own life;” and then remained silent.
“I am glad you can say so much,” replied his friend; “for I was not jesting when I said I would rather that you were at variance with me, than that you laid the whole blame on yourself. It would be courteous, I think, to set this minstrel instantly at liberty. Meantime, for his lady’s sake, I will entreat him, in all honour, to be our guest till the Lady Augusta de Berkely shall do us the same honour, and to assist us in our search after her place of retirement. — Good minstrel,” he continued, “you hear what I say, and you will not, I suppose, be surprised, that in all honour and kind usage, you find yourself detained for a short space in this Castle of Douglas?”
“You seem, Sir Knight,” replied the minstrel, “not so much to keep your eye upon the right of doing what you should, as to possess the might of doing what you would. I must necessarily be guided by your advice, since you have the power to make it a command.”
“And I trust,” continued De Valence, “that when your mistress and you again meet, we shall have the benefit of your intercession for any thing which we may have done to displeasure her, considering that the purpose of our action was exactly the reverse.”
“Let me,” said Sir John de Walton, “say a single word. I will offer thee a chain of gold, heavy enough to bear down the weight of these shackles, as a sign of regret for having condemned thee to suffer so many indignities.”
“Enough said, Sir John,” said De Valence; “let us promise no more till this good minstrel shall see some sign of performance. Follow me this way, and I will tell thee in private of other tidings, which it is important that you should know.”
So saying, he withdrew De Walton from the dungeon, and sending for the old knight, Sir Philip de Montenay, already mentioned, who acted as seneschal of the castle, he commanded that the minstrel should be enlarged from the dungeon, well looked to in other respects, yet prohibited, though with every mark of civility, from leaving the castle without a trusty attendant.
“And now, Sir John de Walton,” he said, “methinks you are a little churlish in not ordering me some breakfast, after I have been all night engaged in your affairs; and a cup of muscadel would, I think, be no bad induction to a full consideration of this perplexed matter.”
“Thou knowest,” answered De Walton, “that thou mayest call for what thou wilt, provided always thou tellest me, without loss of time, what else thou knowest respecting the will of the lady, against whom we have all sinned so grievously — and I, alas, beyond hope of forgiveness!”
“Trust me, I hope,” said the Knight of Valence, “the good lady bears me no malice, as indeed she has expressly renounced any ill-will against me. The words, you see, are as plain as you yourself may read —‘The lady pardons poor Aymer de Valence, and willingly, for having been involved in a mistake, to which she herself led the way; she herself will at all times be happy to meet with him as an acquaintance, and never to think farther of these few days’ history, except as matter of mirth and ridicule.’ So it is expressly written and set down.”
“Yes,” replied Sir John de Walton, “but see you not that her offending lover is expressly excluded from the amnesty granted to the lesser offender? Mark you not the concluding paragraph?” He took the scroll with a trembling hand, and read with a discomposed voice its closing words. “It is even so: ‘All former connexion must henceforth be at an end between him and the supposed Augustine.’ Explain to me how the reading of these words is reconcilable to anything but their plain sense of condemnation and forfeiture of contract, implying destruction of the hopes of Sir John de Walton?”
“You are somewhat an older man than I, Sir Knight,” answered De Valence, “and I will grant, by far the wiser and more experienced; yet I will uphold that there is no adopting the interpretation which you seem to have affixed in your mind to this letter, without supposing the preliminary, that the fair writer was distracted in her understanding, — nay, never start, look wildly, or lay your hand on your sword, I do not affirm this is the case. I say again, that no woman in her senses would have pardoned a common acquaintance for his behaving to her with unintentional disrespect and unkindness, during the currency of a certain masquerade, and, at the same time, sternly and irrevocably broke off with the lover to whom her troth was plighted, although his error in joining in the offence was neither grosser nor more protracted than that of the person indifferent to her love.”
“Do not blaspheme,” said Sir John do Walton; “and forgive me, if, in justice to truth and to the angel whom I fear I have forfeited for ever, I point out to you the difference which a maiden of dignity and of feeling must make between an offence towards her, committed by an ordinary acquaintance, and one of precisely the same kind offered by a person who is bound by the most undeserved preference, by the most generous benefits, and by every thing which can bind human feeling, to think and reflect ere he becomes an actor in any case in which it is possible for her to be concerned.”
“Now, by mine honour,” said Aymer de Valence, “I am glad to hear thee make some attempt at reason, although it is but an unreasonable kind of reason too, since its object is to destroy thine own hopes, and argue away thine own chance of happiness; but if I have, in the progress of this affair, borne me sometimes towards thee, as to give not only the governor, but even the friend, some cause of displeasure, I will make it up to thee now, John de Walton, by trying to convince thee in spite of thine own perverse logic. But here comes the muscadel and the breakfast; wilt thou take some refreshment; — or shall we go on without the spirit of muscadel?”
“For Heaven’s sake,” replied De Walton, “do as thou wilt, so thou make me clear of thy well-intended babble.”
“Nay, thou shalt not brawl me out of my powers of argument,” said De Valence, laughing, and helping himself to a brimming cup of wine; “if thou acknowledgest thyself conquered, I am contented to give the victory to the inspiring strength of the jovial liquor.”
“Do as thou listest,” said De Walton, “but make an end of an argument which thou canst not comprehend.”
“I deny the charge,” answered the younger knight, wiping his lips, after having finished his draught; “and listen, Walton the Warlike, to a chapter in the history of woman, in which thou art more unskilled than I would wish thee to be. Thou canst not deny that, be it right or wrong, the lady Augusta hath ventured more forward with you than is usual upon the sea of affection; she boldly made thee her choice, while thou wert as yet known to her only as a flower of English chivalry — faith, and I respect her for her frankness — but it was a choice, which the more cold of her own sex might perhaps claim occasion to term rash and precipitate. — Nay, be not, I pray thee, offended — I am far from thinking or saying so; on the contrary, I will uphold with my lance, her selection of John de Walton against the minions of a court, to be a wise and generous choice, and her own behaviour as alike candid and noble. But she herself is not unlikely to dread unjust misconstruction; a fear of which may not improbably induce her, upon any occasion, to seize some opportunity of showing an unwonted and unusual rigour towards her lover, in order to balance her having extended towards him, in the beginning of their intercourse, somewhat of an unusual degree of frank encouragement. Nay, it might be easy for her lover so far to take part against himself, by arguing as thou dost, when out of thy senses, as to make it difficult for her to withdraw from an argument which he himself was foolish enough to strengthen; and thus, like a maiden too soon taken at her first nay-say, she shall perhaps be allowed no opportunity of bearing herself according to her real feelings, or retracting a sentence issued with consent of the party whose hopes it destroys.”
“I have heard thee, De Valence,” answered the governor of Douglas Dale; “nor is it difficult for me to admit, that these thy lessons may serve as a chart to many a female heart, but not to that of Augusta de Berkely. By my life, I say I would much sooner be deprived of the merit of those few deeds of chivalry which thou sayest have procured for me such enviable distinction, than I would act upon them with the insolence, as if I said that my place in the lady’s bosom was too firmly fixed to be shaken even by the success of a worthier man, or by my own gross failure in respect to the object of my attachment. No, herself alone shall have power to persuade me that even goodness equal to that of an interceding saint will restore me to the place in her affections which I have most unworthily forfeited, by a stupidity only to be compared to that of brutes.”
“If you are so minded,” said Aymer De Valence, “I have only one word more — forgive me if I speak it peremptorily — the lady, as you say, and say truly, must be the final arbitress in this question. My arguments do not extend to insisting that you should claim her hand, whether she herself will or no; but, to learn her determination, it is necessary that you should find out where she is, of which I am unfortunately not able to inform you.”
“How! what mean you!” exclaimed the governor, who now only began to comprehend the extent of his misfortune; “whither hath she fled? or with whom?”
“She is fled, for what I know,” said De Valence, “in search of a more enterprising lover than one who is so willing to interpret every air of frost as a killing blight to his hopes; perhaps she seeks the Black Douglas, or some such hero of the Thistle, to reward with her lands, her lordships, and beauty, those virtues of enterprise and courage, of which John de Walton was at one time thought possessed. But, seriously, events are passing around us of strange import. I saw enough last night, on my way to Saint Bride’s, to make me suspicious of every one. I sent to you as a prisoner the old sexton of the church of Douglas. I found him contumacious as to some enquiries which I thought it proper to prosecute; but of this more at another time. The escape of this lady adds greatly to the difficulties which encircle this devoted castle.”
“Aymer de Valence,” replied De Walton, in a solemn and animated tone, “Douglas Castle shall be defended, as we have hitherto been able, with the aid of heaven, to spread from its battlements the broad banner of St. George. Come of me what lists during my life, I will die the faithful lover of Augusta de Berkely, even although I no longer live as her chosen knight. There are cloisters and hermitages”—
“Ay, marry are there,” replied Sir Aymer; “and girdles of hemp, moreover, and beads of oak; but all these we omit in our reckonings, till we discover where the Lady Augusta is, and what she purposes to do in this matter.”
“You say well,” replied De Walton; “let us hold counsel together by what means we shall, if possible, discover the lady’s too hasty retreat, by which she has done me great wrong; I mean, if she supposed her commands would not have been fully obeyed, had she honoured with them the governor of Douglas Dale, or any who are under his command.”
“Now,” replied De Valence, “you again speak like a true son of chivalry. With your permission I would summon this minstrel to our presence. His fidelity to his mistress has been remarkable; and, as matters stand now, we must take instant measures for tracing the place of her retreat.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00