Castle Dangerous, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Eighteenth.

His talk was of another world — his bodiments

Strange, doubtful, and mysterious; those who heard him

Listen’d as to a man in feverish dreams,

Who speaks of other objects than the present,

And mutters like to him who sees a vision.


On the same Palm Sunday when De Walton and Douglas measured together their mighty swords, the minstrel Bertram was busied with the ancient Book of Prophecies, which we have already mentioned as the supposed composition of Thomas the Rhymer, but not without many anxieties as to the fate of his lady, and the events which were passing around him. As a minstrel he was desirous of an auditor to enter into the discoveries which he should make in that mystic volume, as well as to assist in passing away the time; Sir John de Walton had furnished him, in Gilbert Greenleaf the archer, with one who was well contented to play the listener “from morn to dewy eve,” provided a flask of Gascon wine, or a stoup of good English ale, remained on the board. It may be remembered that De Walton, when he dismissed the minstrel from the dungeon, was sensible that he owed him some compensation for the causeless suspicion which had dictated his imprisonment, more particularly as he was a valued servant, and had shown himself the faithful confidant of the Lady Augusta de Berkely, and the person who was moreover likely to know all the motives and circumstances of her Scottish journey. To secure his good wishes was, therefore, politic; and De Walton had intimated to his faithful archer that he was to lay aside all suspicion of Bertram, but at the same time keep him in sight, and, if possible, in good humour with the governor of the castle, and his adherents. Greenleaf accordingly had no doubt in his own mind, that the only way to please a minstrel was to listen with patience and commendation to the lays which he liked best to sing, or the tales which he most loved to tell; and in order to ensure the execution of his master’s commands, he judged it necessary to demand of the butler such store of good liquor, as could not fail to enhance the pleasure of his society.

Having thus fortified himself with the means of bearing a long interview with the minstrel, Gilbert Greenleaf proposed to confer upon him the bounty of an early breakfast, which, if it pleased him, they might wash down with a cup of sack, and, having his master’s commands to show the minstrel any thing about the castle which he might wish to see, refresh their overwearied spirits by attending a part of the garrison of Douglas to the service of the day, which, as we have already seen, was of peculiar sanctity. Against such a proposal the minstrel, a good Christian by profession, and, by his connexion with the joyous science, a good fellow, having no objections to offer, the two comrades, who had formerly little good-will towards each other, commenced their morning’s repast on that fated Palm Sunday, with all manner of cordiality and good fellowship.

“Do not believe, worthy minstrel,” said the archer, “that my master in any respect disparages your worth or rank in referring you for company or conversation to so poor a man as myself. It is true I am no officer of this garrison; yet for an old archer, who, for these thirty years, has lived by bow and bowstring, I do not (Our Lady make me thankful!) hold less share in the grace of Sir John de Walton, the Earl of Pembroke, and other approved good soldiers, than many of those giddy young men on whom commissions are conferred, and to whom confidences are intrusted, not on account of what they have done, but what their ancestors have done before them. I pray you to notice among them one youth placed at our head in De Walton’s absence, and who bears the honoured name of Aymer de Valence, being the same with that of the Earl of Pembroke, of whom I have spoken; this knight has also a brisk young page, whom men call Fabian Harbothel.”

“Is it to these gentlemen that your censure applies?” answered the minstrel; “I should have judged differently, having never, in the course of my experience, seen a young man more courteous and amiable than the young knight you named.”

“I nothing dispute that it may be so,” said the archer, hastening to amend the false step which he had made; “but in order that it should be so, it will be necessary that he conform to the usages of his uncle, taking the advice of experienced old soldiers in the emergencies which may present themselves; and not believing, that the knowledge which it takes many years of observation to acquire, can be at once conferred by the slap of the flat of a sword, and the magic words, ‘Rise up, Sir Arthur’— or however the case may be.”

“Doubt not, Sir Archer,” replied Bertram, “that I am fully aware of the advantage to be derived from conversing with men of experience like you: it benefiteth men of every persuasion, and I myself am oft reduced to lament my want of sufficient knowledge of armorial bearings, signs, and cognizances, and would right fain have thy assistance, where I am a stranger alike to the names of places, of persons, and description of banners and emblems by which great families are distinguished from each other, so absolutely necessary to the accomplishment of my present task.”

“Pennons and banners,” answered the archer, “I have seen right many, and can assign, as is a soldier’s wont, the name of the leader to the emblem under which he musters his followers; nevertheless, worthy minstrel, I cannot presume to understand what you call prophecies, with or under warranted authority of old painted books, expositions of dreams, oracles, revelations, invocations of damned spirits, judicials, astrologicals, and other gross and palpable offences, whereby men, pretending to have the assistance of the devil, do impose upon the common people, in spite of the warnings of the Privy Council; not however, that I suspect you, worthy minstrel, of busying yourself with these attempts to explain futurity, which are dangerous attempts, and may be truly said to be penal, and part of treason.”

“There is something in what you say,” replied the minstrel; “yet it applieth not to books and manuscripts such as I have been consulting; part, of which things therein written having already come to pass, authorize us surely to expect the completion of the rest; nor would I have much difficulty in showing you from this volume, that enough has been already proved true, to entitle us to look with certainty to the accomplishment of that which remains.”

“I should be glad to hear that,” answered the archer, who entertained little more than a soldier’s belief respecting prophecies and auguries, but yet cared not bluntly to contradict the minstrel upon such subjects, as he had been instructed by Sir John de Walton to comply with his humour. Accordingly the minstrel began to recite verses, which, in our time, the ablest interpreter could not make sense out of.

“When the cook crows, keep well his comb,

For the fox and the fulmart they are false both.

When the raven and the rook have rounded together,

And the kid in his cliff shall accord to the same.

Then shall they be bold, and soon to battle thereafter.

Then the birds of the raven rugs and reives,

And the leal men of Lothian, are louping on their horse;

Then shall the poor people be spoiled full near,

And the Abbeys be burnt truly that stand upon Tweed

They shall burn and slay, and great reif make:

There shall no poor man who say whose man he is:

Then shall the land be lawless, for love there is none.

Then falset shall have foot fully five years;

Then truth surely shall be tint, and none shall lippen to other;

The one cousing shall not trust the other,

Not the son the father, nor the father the son:

For to have his goods he would have him hanged.”

&c. &c. &c.

The archer listened to these mystic prognostications, which were not the less wearisome that they were, in a considerable degree, unintelligible; at the same time subduing his Hotspur-like disposition to tire of the recitation, yet at brief intervals comforting himself with an application to the wine flagon, and enduring as he might what he neither understood nor took interest in. Meanwhile the minstrel proceeded with his explanation of the dubious and imperfect vaticinations of which we have given a sufficient specimen.

“Could you wish,” said he to Greenleaf, “a more exact description of the miseries which have passed over Scotland in these latter days? Have not these the raven and rook, the fox and the fulmart, explained; either because the nature of the birds or beasts bear an individual resemblance to those of the knights who display them on their banners, or otherwise are bodied forth by actual blazonry on their shields, and come openly into the field to ravage and destroy? Is not the total disunion of the land plainly indicated by these words, that connexions of blood shall be broken asunder, that kinsmen shall not trust each other, and that the father and son, instead, of putting faith in their natural connexion, shall seek each other’s life, in order to enjoy his inheritance? The leal men of Lothian are distinctly mentioned as taking arms, and there is plainly allusion to the other events of these late Scottish troubles. The death of this last William is obscurely intimated under the type of a hound, which was that good lord’s occasional cognizance.

‘The hound that was harm’d then muzzled shall be,

Who loved him worst shall weep for his wreck;

Yet shall a whelp rise of the same race,

That rudely shall roar, and rule the whole north,

And quit the whole quarrel of old deeds done,

Though he from his hold be kept back awhile.

True Thomas told me this in a troublesome time,

In a harvest morning at Eldoun hills.’”

“This hath a meaning, Sir Archer,” continued the minstrel, “and which flies as directly to its mark as one of your own arrows, although there may be some want of wisdom in making the direct explication. Being, however, upon assurance with you, I do not hesitate to tell you, that in my opinion this lion’s whelp that awaits its time, means this same celebrated Scottish prince, Robert the Bruce, who, though repeatedly defeated, has still, while hunted with bloodhounds, and surrounded by enemies of every sort, maintained his pretensions to the crown of Scotland, in despite of King Edward, now reigning.”

“Minstrel,” answered the soldier, “you are my guest, and we have sat down together as friends to this simple meal in good comradeship. I must tell thee, however, though I am loath to disturb our harmony, that thou art the first who hast adventured to speak a word before Gilbert Greenleaf in favour of that outlawed traitor, Robert Bruce, who has by his seditions so long disturbed the peace of this realm. Take my advice, and be silent on this topic; for, believe me, the sword of a true English archer will spring from its scabbard without consent of its master, should it hear aught said to the disparagement of bonny St. George and his ruddy cross; nor shall the authority of Thomas the Rhymer, or any other prophet in Scotland, England, or Wales, be considered as an apology for such unbecoming predictions.”

“I were loth to give offence at any time,” said the minstrel, “much more to provoke you to anger, when I am in the very act of experiencing your hospitality. I trust, however, you will remember that I do not come your uninvited guest, and that if I speak to you of future events, I do so without having the least intention to add my endeavour to bring them to pass; for, God knows, it is many years since my sincere prayer has been for peace and happiness to all men, and particularly honour and happiness to the land of Bowmen, in which I was born, and which I am bound to remember in my prayers beyond all other nations in the world.”

“It is well that you do so,” said the archer; “for so you shall best maintain your bounden duty to the fair land of your birth, which is the richest that the sun shines upon. Something, however, I would know, if it suits with your pleasure to tell me, and that is, whether you find anything in these rude rhymes appearing to affect the safety of the Castle of Douglas, where we now are? — for, mark me, Sir Minstrel, I have observed that these mouldering parchments, when or by whomsoever composed, have so far a certain coincidence with the truth, that when such predictions which they contain are spread abroad in the country, and create rumours of plots, conspiracies, and bloody wars, they are very apt to cause the very mischances which they would be thought only to predict.”

“It were not very cautious in me,” said the minstrel, “to choose a prophecy for my theme, which had reference to any attack on this garrison; for in such case I should, according to your ideas, lay myself under suspicion of endeavouring to forward what no person could more heartily regret than myself.”

“Take my word for it, good friend,” said the archer, “that it shall not be thus with thee; for I neither will myself conceive ill of thee, nor report thee to Sir John de Walton as meditating harm against him or his garrison — nor, to speak truth, would Sir John de Walton be willing to believe anyone who did. He thinks highly, and no doubt deservedly, of thy good faith towards thy lady, and would conceive it unjust to suspect the fidelity of one who has given evidence of his willingness to meet death rather than betray the least secret of his mistress.”

“In preserving her secret,” said Bertram, “I only discharged the duty of a faithful servant, leaving it to her to judge how long such a secret ought to be preserved; for a faithful servant ought to think as little of the issue towards himself of the commission which he bears, as the band of flock silk concerns itself with the secret of the letter which it secures. And, touching your question — I have no objections, although merely to satisfy your curiosity, to unfold to you that these old prophecies do contain some intimations of wars befalling in Douglas Dale, between an haggard, or wild hawk, which I take to be the cognizance of Sir John de Walton, and the three stars, or martlets, which is the cognizance of the Douglas; and more particulars I could tell of these onslaughts, did I know whereabouts is a place in these woods termed Bloody Sykes, the scene also, as I comprehend, of slaughter and death, between the followers of the three stars and those who hold the part of the Saxon, or King of England.”

“Such a place,” replied Gilbert Greenleaf, “I have heard often mentioned by that name among the natives of these parts; nevertheless it is vain to seek to discover the precise spot, as these wily Scots conceal from us with care every thing respecting the geography of their country, as it is called by learned men; but we may here mention the Bloody Sykes, Bottomless Myre, and other places, as portentous names, to which their traditions attach some signification of war and slaughter. If it suits your wish, however, we can, on our way to the church, try to find this place called Bloody Sykes, which I doubt not we shall trace out long before the traitors who meditate an attack upon us will find a power sufficient for the attempt.”

Accordingly the minstrel and archer, the latter of whom was by this time reasonably well refreshed with wine, marched out of the castle of Douglas, without waiting for others of the garrison, resolving to seek the dingle bearing the ominous name of Bloody Sykes, concerning which the archer only knew that by mere accident he had heard of a place bearing such a name, at the hunting match made under the auspices of Sir John de Walton, and knew that it lay in the woods somewhere near the town of Douglas and in the vicinage of the castle.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00