The way is long, my children, long and rough
The moors are dreary, and the woods are dark;
But he that creeps from cradle on to grave,
Unskill’d save in the velvet course of fortune,
Hath miss’d the discipline of noble hearts.
It was yet early in the day, when, after the Governor and De Valence had again summoned Bertram to their councils, the garrison of Douglas was mustered, and a number of small parties, in addition to those already despatched by De Valence from Hazelside, were sent out to scour the woods in pursuit of the fugitives, with strict injunctions to treat them, if overtaken, with the utmost respect, and to obey their commands, keeping an eye, however, on the place where they might take refuge. To facilitate this result, some who were men of discretion were intrusted with the secret who the supposed pilgrim and the fugitive nun really were. The whole ground, whether forest or moorland, within many miles of Douglas Castle, was covered and traversed by parties, whose anxiety to detect the fugitives was equal to the reward for their safe recovery, liberally offered by De Walton and De Valence. They spared not, meantime, to make such enquiries in all directions as might bring to light any machinations of the Scottish insurgents which might be on foot in those wild districts, of which, as we have said before, De Valence, in particular, entertained strong suspicions. Their instructions were, in case of finding such, to proceed against the persons engaged, by arrest and otherwise, in the most rigorous manner, such as had been commanded by De Walton himself at the time when the Black Douglas and his accomplices had been the principal objects of his wakeful suspicions. These various detachments had greatly reduced the strength of the garrison; yet, although numerous, alert, and despatched in every direction, they had not the fortune either to fall on the trace of the Lady of Berkely, or to encounter any party whatever of the insurgent Scottish.
Meanwhile, our fugitives had, as we have seen, set out from the convent of St. Bride under the guidance of a cavalier, of whom the Lady Augusta knew nothing, save that he was to guide their steps in a direction where they would not be exposed to the risk of being overtaken. At length Margaret de Hautlieu herself spoke upon the subject.
“You have made no enquiry,” she said, “Lady Augusta, whither you are travelling, or under whose charge, although methinks it should much concern you to know.”
“Is it not enough for me to be aware,” answered Lady Augusta, “that I am travelling, kind sister, under the protection of one to whom you yourself trust as to a friend; and why need I be anxious for any farther assurance of my safety?”
“Simply,” said Margaret, de Hautlieu, “because the persons with whom, from national as well as personal circumstances, I stand connected, are perhaps not exactly the protectors to whom you, lady, can with such perfect safety intrust yourself.”
“In what sense,” said the Lady Augusta, “do you use these words?”
“Because,” replied Margaret de Hautlieu, “the Bruce, the Douglas, Malcolm Fleming, and others of that party, although they are incapable of abusing such an advantage to any dishonourable purpose, might nevertheless, under a strong temptation, consider you as an hostage thrown into their hands by Providence, through whom they might meditate the possibility of gaining some benefit to their dispersed and dispirited party.”
“They might make me,” answered the Lady Augusta, “the subject of such a treaty, when I was dead, but, believe me, never while I drew vital breath. Believe me also that, with whatever pain, shame, or agony, I would again deliver myself up to the power of De Walton, yes, I would rather put myself in his hands — what do I say? his! — I would rather surrender myself to the meanest archer of my native country, than combine with its foes to work mischief to merry England —— my own England — that country which is the envy of every other country, and the pride of all who can term themselves her natives!”
“I thought that your choice might prove so,” said Lady Margaret; “and since you have honoured me with your confidence, gladly would I provide for your liberty by placing you as nearly in the situation which you yourself desire, as my poor means have the power of accomplishing. In half an hour we shall be in danger of being taken by the English parties, which will be instantly dispersed in every direction in quest of us. Now, take notice, lady, I know a place in which I can take refuge with my friends and countrymen, those gallant Scots, who have never even in this dishonoured age bent the knee to Baal. For their honour, their nicety of honour, I could in other days have answered with my own; but of late, I am bound to tell you, they have been put to those trials by which the most generous affections may be soured, and driven to a species of frenzy, the more wild that it is founded originally on the noblest feelings. A person who feels himself deprived of his natural birthright, denounced, exposed to confiscation and death, because he avouches the rights of his king, the cause of his country, ceases on his part to be nice or precise in estimating the degree of retaliation which it is lawful for him to exercise in the requital of such injuries; and, believe me, bitterly should I lament having guided you into a situation which you might consider afflicting or degrading.”
“In a word then,” said the English lady, “what is it you apprehend I am like to suffer at the hands of your friends, whom I must be excused for terming rebels?”
“If,” said the sister Ursula, “your friends, whom I should term oppressors and tyrants, take our land and our lives, seize our castles, and confiscate our property, you must confess, that the rough laws of war indulge mine with the privilege of retaliation. There can be no fear, that such men, under any circumstances, would ever exercise cruelty or insult upon a lady of your rank; but it is another thing to calculate that they will abstain from such means of extorting advantage from your captivity as are common in warfare. You would not, I think, wish to be delivered up to the English, on consideration of Sir John de Walton surrendering the Castle of Douglas to its natural lord; yet, were you in the hands of the Bruce or Douglas, although I can answer for your being treated with all the respect which they have the means of showing, yet I own, their putting you at such a ransom might be by no means unlikely.”
“I would sooner die,” said the Lady Berkely, “than have my name mixed up in a treaty so disgraceful; and De Walton’s reply to it would, I am certain, be to strike the head from the messenger, and throw it from the highest tower of Douglas Castle.”
“Where, then, lady, would you now go,” said sister Ursula, “were the choice in your power?”
“To my own castle,” answered Lady Augusta, “where, if necessary, I could be defended even against the king himself, until I could place at least my person under the protection of the Church.”
“In that case,” replied Margaret de Hautlieu, “my power of rendering you assistance is only precarious, yet it comprehends a choice which I will willingly submit to your decision, notwithstanding I thereby subject the secrets of my friends to some risk of being discovered and frustrated. But the confidence which you have placed in me, imposes on me the necessity of committing to you a like trust. It rests with you, whether you will proceed with me to the secret rendezvous of the Douglas and his friends, which I may be blamed for making known, and there take your chance of the reception which you may encounter, since I cannot warrant you of any thing save honourable treatment, so far as your person is concerned; or if you should think this too hazardous, make the best of your way at once for the Border; in which last case I will proceed as far as I can with you towards the English line, and then leave you to pursue your journey, and to obtain a guard and a conductor among your own countrymen. Meantime, it will be well for me if I escape being taken, since the abbot would not shrink at inflicting upon me the death due to an apostate nun.”
“Such cruelty, my sister, could hardly be inflicted upon one who had never taken the religious vows, and who still, according to the laws of the Church, had a right to make a choice between the world and the veil.”
“Such choice as they gave their gallant victims,” said Lady Margaret, “who have fallen into English hands during these merciless wars — such choice as they gave to Wallace, the Champion of Scotland — such as they gave to Hay, the gentle and the free — to Sommerville, the flower of chivalry — and to Athol, the blood relation of King Edward himself — all of whom were as much traitors, under which name they were executed, as Margaret de Hautlieu is an apostate nun, and subject to the rule of the cloister.”
She spoke with some eagerness, for she felt as if the English lady imputed to her more coldness than she was, in such doubtful circumstances, conscious of manifesting.
“And after all,” she proceeded, “you, Lady Augusta de Berkely, what do you venture, if you run the risk of falling into the hands of your lover? What dreadful risk do you incur? You need not, methinks, fear being immured between four walls, with a basket of bread and a cruise of water, which, were I seized, would be the only support allowed to me for the short space that my life would be prolonged. Nay, even were you to be betrayed to the rebel Scots, as you call them, a captivity among the hills, sweetened by the hope of deliverance, and rendered tolerable by all the alleviations which the circumstances of your captors allowed them the means of supplying, were not, I think, a lot so very hard to endure.”
“Nevertheless,” answered the Lady of Berkely, “frightful enough it must have appeared to me, since, to fly from such, I threw myself upon your guidance.”
“And, whatever you think or suspect,” answered the novice, “I am as true to you as ever was one maiden to another; and as sure as ever sister Ursula was true to her vows, although they were never completed, so will I be faithful to your secret, even at the risk of betraying my own.”
“Hearken, lady!” she said, suddenly pausing, “do you hear that?”
The sound to which she alluded was the same imitation of the cry of an owlet, which the lady had before heard under the walls of the convent.
“These sounds,” said Margaret de Hautlieu, “announce that one is near, more able than I am to direct us in this matter. I must go forward and speak with him; and this man, our guide, will remain by you for a little space; nor, when he quits your bridle, need you wait for any other signal, but ride forward on the woodland path, and obey the advice and directions which will be given you.”
“Stay! stay! sister Ursula!” cried the Lady de Berkely —“abandon me not in this moment of uncertainty and distress!”
“It must be, for the sake of both,” returned Margaret de Hautlieu. “I also am in uncertainty — I also am in distress — and patience and obedience are the only virtues which can save us both.”
So saying, she struck her horse with the riding rod, and moving briskly forward, disappeared among the tangled boughs of a thicket. The Lady of Berkely would have followed her companion, but the cavalier who attended them laid a strong hand upon the bridle of her palfrey, with a look which implied that he would not permit her to proceed in that direction. Terrified, therefore, though she could not exactly state a reason why, the Lady of Berkely remained with her eyes fixed upon the thicket, instinctively, as it were, expecting to see a band of English archers, or rugged Scottish insurgents, issue from its tangled skirts, and doubtful which she should have most considered as the objects of her terror. In the distress of her uncertainty, she again attempted to move forward, but the stern check which her attendant again bestowed upon her bridle, proved sufficiently that in restraining her wishes, the stranger was not likely to spare the strength which he certainly possessed. At length, after some ten minutes had elapsed, the cavalier withdrew his hand from her bridle, and pointing with his lance towards the thicket, through which there winded a narrow, scarce visible path, seemed to intimate to the lady that her road lay in that direction, and that he would no longer prevent her following it.
“Do you not go with me?” said the lady, who, having been accustomed to this man’s company since they left the convent, had by degrees come to look upon him as a sort of protector. He, however, gravely shook his head, as if to excuse complying with a request, which it was not in his power to grant; and turning his steed in a different direction, retired at a pace which soon carried him from her sight. She had then no alternative but to take the path of the thicket, which had been followed by Margaret de Hautlieu, nor did she pursue it long before coming in sight of a singular spectacle. The trees grew wider as the lady advanced, and when she entered the thicket, she perceived that, though hedged in as it were by an enclosure of copsewood, it was in the interior altogether occupied by a few of the magnificent trees, such as seemed to have been the ancestors of the forest, and which, though few in number, were sufficient to overshade all the unoccupied ground, by the great extent of their complicated branches. Beneath one of these lay stretched something of a grey colour, which, as it drew itself together, exhibited the figure of a man sheathed in armour, but strangely accoutred, and in a manner so bizarre, as to indicate some of the wild fancies peculiar to the knights of that period. His armour was ingeniously painted, so as to represent a skeleton; the ribs being constituted by the corselet and its back-piece. The shield represented an owl with its wings spread, a device which was repeated upon the helmet, which appeared to be completely covered by an image of the same bird of ill omen. But that which was particularly calculated to excite surprise in the spectator, was the great height and thinness of the figure, which, as it arose from the ground, and placed itself in an erect posture, seemed rather to resemble an apparition in the act of extricating itself from the grave, than that of an ordinary man rising upon his feet. The horse, too, upon which the lady rode, started back and snorted, either at the sudden change of posture of this ghastly specimen of chivalry, or disagreeably affected by some odour which accompanied his presence. The lady herself manifested some alarm, for although she did not utterly believe she was in the presence of a super natural being, yet, among all the strange half-frantic disguises of chivalry this was assuredly the most uncouth which she had ever seen; and, considering how often the knights of the period pushed their dreamy fancies to the borders of insanity, it seemed at best no very safe adventure to meet? one accoutred in the emblems of the King of Terrors himself, alone, and in the midst of a wild forest. Be the knight’s character and purposes what they might, she resolved, however, to accost him in the language and manner observed in romances upon such occasions, in the hope even that if he were a madman he might prove a peaceable one, and accessible to civility.
“Sir Knight,” she said, in as firm a tone as she could assume, “right sorry am I, if, by my hasty approach, I have disturbed your solitary meditations. My horse, sensible I think of the presence of yours, brought me hither, without my being aware whom or what I was to encounter.”
“I am one,” answered the stranger, in a solemn tone, “whom few men seek to meet, till the time comes that they can avoid me no longer.”
“You speak, Sir Knight,” replied the Lady de Berkely, “according to the dismal character of which it has pleased you to assume the distinction. May I appeal to one whose exterior is so formidable, for the purpose of requesting some directions to guide me through this wild wood; as, for instance, what is the name of the nearest castle, town, or hostelry, and by what course I am best likely to reach such?”
“It is a singular audacity,” answered the Knight of the Tomb, “that would enter into conversation with him who is termed the Inexorable, the Unsparing, and the Pitiless, whom even the most miserable forbears to call to his assistance, lest his prayers should be too soon answered.”
“Sir Knight,” replied the Lady Augusta, “the character which you have assumed, unquestionably for good reasons, dictates to you a peculiar course of speech; but although your part is a sad one, it does not, I should suppose, render it necessary for you to refuse those acts of civility to which you must have bound yourself in taking the high vows of chivalry.”
“If you will trust to my guidance,” replied the ghastly figure, “there is only one condition upon which I can grant you the information which you require; and that is, that you follow my footsteps without any questions asked as to the tendency of our journey.”
“I suppose I must submit to your conditions,” she answered, “if you are indeed pleased to take upon yourself the task of being my guide. In my heart I conceive you to be one of the unhappy gentlemen of Scotland, who are now in arms, as they say, for the defence of their liberties. A rash undertaking has brought me within the sphere of your influence, and now the only favour I have to request of you, against whom I never did, nor planned any evil, is the guidance which your knowledge of the country permits you easily to afford me in my way to the frontiers of England. Believe that what I may see of your haunts or of your practices, shall be to me things invisible, as if they were actually concealed by the sepulchre itself, of the king of which it has pleased you to assume the attributes; and if a sum of money, enough to be the ransom of a wealthy earl, will purchase such a favour at need, such a ransom will be frankly paid, and with as much fidelity as ever it was rendered by a prisoner to the knight by whom he was taken. Do not reject me, princely Bruce — noble Douglas — if indeed it is to either of these that I address myself in this my last extremity — men speak of both as fearful enemies, but generous knights and faithful friends. Let me entreat you to remember how much you would wish your own friends and connexions to meet with compassion under similar circumstances, at the hands of the knights of England.”
“And have they done so?” replied the Knight, in a voice more gloomy than before, “or do you act wisely, while imploring the protection of one whom you believe to be a true Scottish knight, for no other reason than the extreme and extravagant misery of his appearance? — is it, I say, well or wise to remind him of the mode in which the lords of England have treated the lovely maidens and the high-born dames of Scotland? Have not their prison cages been suspended from the battlements of castles, that their captivity might be kept in view of every base burgher, who should desire to look upon the miseries of the noblest peeresses, yea, even the Queen of Scotland?* Is this a recollection which can inspire a Scottish knight with compassion towards an English lady? or is it a thought which can do aught but swell the deeply sworn hatred of Edward Plantagenet, the author of these evils, that boils in every drop of Scottish blood which still feels the throb of life? No; — it is all you can expect, if, cold and pitiless as the sepulchre I represent, I leave you unassisted in the helpless condition in which you describe yourself to be.”
* The Queen of Robert the Bruce, and the Countess of Buchan, by whom, as one of Macduff’s descent, he was crowned at Scone, were secured in the manner described.
“You will not be so inhuman,” replied the lady; “in doing so you must surrender every right to honest fame, which you have won either by sword or lance. You must surrender every pretence to that justice which affects the merit of supporting the weak against the strong. You must make it your principle to avenge the wrongs and tyranny of Edward Plantagenet upon the dames and damosels of England, who have neither access to his councils, nor perhaps give him their approbation in his wars against Scotland.”
“It would not then,” said the Knight of the Sepulchre, “induce you to depart from your request, should I tell you the evils to which you would subject yourself should we fall into the hands of the English troops, and should they find you under such ill-omened protection as my own?”
“Be assured,” said the lady, “the consideration of such an event does not in the least shake my resolution, or desire of confiding in your protection. You may probably know who I am, and may judge how far even, Edward would hold himself entitled to extend punishment towards me.”
“How am I to know you,” replied the ghastly cavalier, “or your circumstances? They must be extraordinary indeed, if they could form a check, either of justice or humanity, upon the revengeful feelings of Edward. All who know him are well assured that it is no ordinary motive that will induce him to depart from the indulgence of his evil temper. But be it as it may, you, lady, if a lady you be, throw yourself as a burden upon me, and I must discharge myself of my trust as I best may; for this purpose you must be guided implicitly by my directions, which will be given after the fashion of those of the spiritual world, being intimations, rather than detailed instructions for your conduct, and expressed rather by commands, than, by any reason or argument. In this way it is possible that I may be of service to you; in any other case, it is most likely that I may fail you at need, and melt from your side like a phantom which dreads the approach of day.”
“You cannot be so cruel!” answered the lady. “A gentleman, a knight, and a nobleman — and I persuade myself I speak to all — hath duties which he cannot abandon.”
“He has, I grant it, and they are most sacred to me,” answered the Spectral Knight; “but I have also duties whose obligations are doubly binding, and to which I must sacrifice those which would otherwise lead me to devote myself to your rescue. The only question is whether you feel inclined to accept my protection on the limited terms on which alone I can extend it, or whether you deem it better that each go their own way, and limit themselves to their own resources, and trust the rest to Providence?” “Alas!” replied the lady, “beset and hard pressed as I am, to ask me to form a resolution for myself, is like calling on the wretch in the act of falling from a precipice, to form a calm judgment by what twig he may best gain the chance of breaking his fall. His answer must necessarily be, that he will cling to that which he can easiest lay hold of, and trust the rest to Providence. I accept therefore your offer of protection in the modified way you are pleased to limit it, and I put my faith in Heaven and in you. To aid me effectually, however, you must know my name and my circumstances.”
“All these,” answered the Knight of the Sepulchre, “have already been told me by your late companion; for deem not, young lady, that either beauty, rank, extended domains, unlimited wealth, or the highest accomplishments, can weigh any thing in the consideration of him who wears the trappings of the tomb, and whose affections and desires are long buried in the charnel-house.”
“May your faith,” said the Lady Augusta de Berkely, “be as steady as your words appear severe, and I submit to your guidance, without the least doubt or fear that it will prove otherwise than as I venture to hope.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00