Although the jealous dreamings of King James had lead him rather to desire the absence of Sir Walter Stewart from his court, whilst the Knight was yet a bachelor, he was no sooner fairly married, than all such fancies were dissipated from the royal mind. The renewed enjoyment in Sir Walter’s society, which the monarch had experienced, previous to the departure of the newly married pair for Stradawn, only served to render the after absence of his favourite the more insufferable, and he soon began to weary for the return of so accomplished a companion. Sir Walter had sufficient opportunity of being rendered sensible of the satisfactory alteration in the King’s manner towards him, before he left the court; but, notwithstanding all this, he was in no small degree surprised, as well as delighted, with the arrival of the special messenger, who was the bearer of the royal command for him, to attend his Majesty at the tournament, which reached him the very day after Cochran had left him. Sir Walter being one of the best equestrians of his time, he was naturally extremely fond of horses. His great passion was to possess himself of the most beautiful steeds that could possibly be procured, and he spared neither pains nor expense in the gratification of this knight-like fancy. Some time before the period we are now speaking of, he chanced to have acquired some piebald horses, which were of a white colour, marked in a very extraordinary manner with large patches of a sort of bluish tinge. This circumstance led him to indulge the whim of collecting more of the same description, and having, from time to time, procured individual animals, from all quarters, and a considerable addition to their numbers having recently arrived, he now at length found himself enabled to mount a large troop of his attendants on creatures of a similar description, and of the most exquisite symmetry of form. Prepared as he thus happened to be, the news of the tournament gave him particular gratification. His heart exulted, and his mind was all agog, at the prospect of such an opportunity of making so marvellous a display, before a more numerous, as well as a more experienced, collection of eyes, than his own glens could afford him. Accordingly, he began to busy himself, without loss of time, in making those arrangements which were necessary to enable him to appear with that degree of splendour which he always wished to exhibit on such occasions. Mr. Jonathan Junkins, and all the tailors for many miles round, were put in requisition to make rich housings, and footmantles of scarlet cloth for the saddles, and everything else was got up in a proportionable style of splendour. But let us not imagine that this, his so minute attention to such fopperies, should lower Sir Walter Stewart in our opinion, for we must remember that all such trifles, being integral parts of chivalry, assumed the greatest importance in the eyes of every knight. For many reasons, Sir Walter Stewart felt no great desire to take his wife with him to court, but he could find no good plea for leaving her behind. Amongst other preparations, therefore, the lady’s horse litter required to be new furbished up, seeing that she was now in a condition that made riding somewhat dangerous; but so great was the expedition used by all hands, that by the day previous to that fixed for departure, all the horses were duly trained, and all their equipments, as well as those for the men-at-arms, and all other things necessary for his expedition, were in the highest order.
Sir Walter Stewart retired to rest that night with the intention of being up with the earliest dawn, that he might himself see that nothing had been forgotten. Upon reaching his lady’s apartment, he found no one with her but her page, English Tomkins, as he was familiarly called. This was a boy of great beauty of countenance, and of an intelligence of eye very superior to that which his years might have promised. he had followed the lady from England, and he was so strongly attached to his mistress, that is he was at all deep in her confidence, he had prudence enough to keep all that he knew strictly secret from every one with whom his situation brought him into contact. To all, except to her, he was reserved and distant, to an extent much beyond that which might have been looked for from the natural carelessness and ingenuousness of youth, and even the good-humoured freedom which Sir Walter used with him, was never successful in breaking through the parchment case in which he seemed to wrap himself up. He was a most impenetrable youth, and no long time elapsed after the Knight’s marriage, before Sir Walter began to look upon the boy with a certain jealousy and dislike, which he could neither account for nor overcome.
“Do it thine own way,” said the lady to him with so great earnestness in her communication with him, that she perceived not Sir Walter’s entrance. “Do it thine own way, I tell thee, boy; but see that it be done, and that surely, and secretly too – for I could have no will to leave Drummin, and no heart to enjoy the pleasures of the Court, unless I knew that this was done ere I went.”
“What may this be, upon which so much of thy happiness depends?” demanded Sir Walter Stewart advancing.
“Holy Virgin, what a start you gave me!” cried the lady; “such puerile tricks are hardly worthy of thee.”
“What tricks?” asked the Knight, with utter simplicity.
“Such boyish tricks, I tell thee,” said the lady, smoothing her angry countenance, and throwing over it a playful smile, and at the same time gently tapping his cheek, as if in the most perfect good humour. “I mean such boyish tricks as that which thou hast now used, by stealing thus to my chamber, and secreting thyself, that thou mightest startle me for thine idle amusement.”
“Credit me, I am no such idle boy, as thou wouldst suppose,” said Sir Walter, gravely; “I have been guilty of no such silly conduct. I came, as I am ever wont to do, without either the intent or the thought of surprising thee, Nay, I knew not that I had done so, until thou didst utter that scream of surprise.”
“Well, well, I believe thee,” said the lady; “and if thou hadst stolen upon my privacy, thou couldst have gained nothing that would have amounted to treason, seeing that I was but cautioning Tomkins here, as to how he should execute a small deed of charity for me, ere we go to-morrow, which I could ill brook the neglect of. Now, boy, thou may’st go,” continued the lady; “and see that thou doest my bidding to the very letter.”
“Your commands shall be strictly obeyed, lady,” said the boy, bowing as he retired.
The apartment in which the Knight and his lady slept had a window in it which looked down the vale, formed by the combined waters of the Aven and the Livat. A faint but glowing red light shot through this window towards morning, and falling upon Sir Walter Stewart’s eyes, gradually unsealed their lids from the deep sleep in which they were closed. he started up at this appearance of approaching sunrise – hurried on his clothes, and hastened down stairs to the court-yard. There he found the men-at-arms, who had the watch, all at their posts; but none of the grooms, or the others whom he had expected to have found already busied with their preparations, were as yet astir. Having expressed his surprise at their laziness, he learned from those on guard, that it yet wanted two good hours of day. being unwilling to retire again to his chamber, he walked forth beyond the walls, to the terrace on which the castle stands; and he had no sooner got there, than the cause of this his premature disturbance was made sufficiently manifest to him, for his eyes were immediately caught, and his attention fearfully arrested, by a column of fire that shot up from the cottage of Alice Asher, and inflamed the very clouds above.
Giving one loud shout of alarm to the people within the castle walls, he stayed not for them, but rushed frantically down the green slope, and crossing the rustic foot-bridge that spanned the river Livat, immediately under the fortalice, he flew towards the wooded hill, too accurately guided through the obscurity of the night, by the conflagration, the light from which blazed in his eyes. But whilst it thus served to direct him towards its object, it had also the effect of dazzling his vision; so that, in the furious precipitation of his speed, he ran against some living being that was coming hurriedly in the opposite direction. Whatever it might be, his force was so tremendous, that he drove it aside from the path, like a ball from a bat, and then rolling forwards on the ground himself, and over and over, he lay for some moments senseless upon the grass. But, having soon afterwards recovered himself, he sprang again to his legs, and, his whole thoughts being absorbed at the moment by his agonising anxiety for Alice Asher’s safety, he stopped not to enquire what had become of the individual who had produced his accident, but rushed on again towards the burning house, on which he still kept his eyes fixed. Long ere he gained the foot of the hill on which it stood, a momentary depression of the flame, followed by an equally sudden and very great increase of it, told him that the roof had fallen in, and that, if the inmates had not already fled for safety, they must now be beyond all reach of assistance. Yet still he paused not; but, doubling his speed, he rushed breathless up through the wood on the side of the hill, and at length arrived at the cottage.
What a sad spectacle did it now present! The walls alone were standing, like a huge grate, in which the inflammable materials of the heather-thatched roof, and the furniture, and interior wood-work, were rapidly consuming. The roses and woodbines that crept over the walls, or trailed in rude luxuriance over the porch, were now shrivelled up and scorched by the intense heat within, nay, even the shrubs and flowers that grew around, were dried up and killed by it.
“Oh, Holy Virgin Mother, she is gone! she is gone!” cried Sir Walter, giving way to a paroxysm of grief.
And now people came running together from the nearest cottages. eagerly did he enquire of all he met for some information, regarding Alice Asher; but no one could tell him aught of her. The men from the Castle came crowding up the hill, bearing buckets of water. These were now useless. But still Sir Walter called on those who carried them to exert themselves, and, urged by his commands, they ran to and from a neighbouring pool, bearing water, and pouring it over the sinking flames, till they were finally extinguished, at least so far, that they were enabled to rake amid the red-hot embers with long poles, without danger to themselves. With what torturing anxiety did Sir Walter Stewart stand, in the hope that no human remains would be found, by which circumstance he expected to satisfy himself that Alice Asher had escaped. But, alas! they had not searched far, when they found a body, or rather a half-consumed skeleton, in so fearful a state of mutilation, that although its size left no doubt that it was that of a woman, it was quite impossible to guess at the person. Sir Walter was frantic. But still hope lingered within his bosom. Alice had a servant maid in the house. This skeleton was nearer, as he thought, to the size of the woman, than to that of the mistress. Besides, these remains were found in a part of the house which this attendant inhabited. No doubt was left that they were hers; and Sir Walter’s heart expanded with the temporary relief which it experienced.
But the search went on. And now Sir Walter Stewart’s hart again fluttered betwixt torturing hope and fear, – till, – oh, wretched and bitterly afflicting sight; in that part of the cottage which Alice Asher more particularly occupied, another half-consumed body was found. This was also that of a woman; and, as it corresponded accurately to the size of her about whose fate he was so unhappily interested, every spark of hope was at once extinguished within him. His brain whirled in strange and bewildering confusion. He gasped for breath, and seemed to swallow down liquid fire; all consciousness left him for a time; and he sank down on an adjacent bank in a temporary fainting fit.
I shall not attempt to describe the flood of strong and resistless feeling to which Sir Walter Stewart, resolute as he might be, was compelled to give way, when his senses fully returned to him. Those who were around him respected them in silence. The sun soon afterwards arose upon the melancholy scene; and then it was that the brave Knight’s countenance was observed by all, to bear powerfully-written testimony of the deep grief that had been at work upon it. Making a strong and manly effort to subdue his affliction, he gave orders to his people to see that the remains, now so revolting to look upon, should be properly attended to; and, despatching a confidential person to the priest who had acted as father-confessor to Alice Asher, he besought him to do all that might be requisite to ensure that the last sad duties should be decently and reverentially paid, and every religious rite duly performed to her, whose life of contrition and penitence, for a sin which he felt to have been his alone, had so fair a prospect of reconciling her to her Maker. And, having made these arrangements, he slowly and silently, and with a sorrowful, heavy, and lacerated heart, bent his steps back to Drummin.
When Sir Walter Stewart, and those who were with him, had reached the place where he had been so unaccountably thrown down, he was surprised to see a human figure lying a few yards off the footpath, with the head and shoulders crammed into a thicket. On approaching it, the dress at once informed him that it was his lady’s page, English Tomkins. Having ordered some of his people to pull him forth from the bushes in which he was half hid, and to raise him up, he was discovered to be quite dead;- and his death was at once seen to have been occasioned by his head having come against the thick and knotty trunk of an oak, which grew up from amidst the black thorns and honeysuckles, so that his skull had been dreadfully fractured, and instant extermination of life had ensued.
“Jesus have mercy on me!” cried Sir Walter, with great feeling. “I have been the innocent cause of this poor boy’s death, by running against him in the dark;” and having said so, he proceeded to explain to his people the circumstances which had produced and attended the accident.
“Methinks he hardly merits to be much wailed for, Sir Knight, unless thou canst say that these strange articles can have been innocently carried by him,” said one of the attendants, pulling at the same time, from the bosom of the corpse, a small bundle of matches and a tinder-box, with a flint and steel. “Marry, these would seem to say, that he had been better employed had he been in his bed.”
“What do I see?” cried Sir Walter Stewart, filled with horror, and greatly agitated. “What! was it murder then? – murder of the most horrible description? Oh, holy Mother of God, can there be such villainy upon earth?”
“What shall we do with this wretched carcase,” demanded one of the people.
“Oh, most unlucky accident!” cried Sir Walter, without heeding him. “Would that I had but caught him in life! But, alas! strong as suspicion is against him, his secret has died with him! We cannot now wrench forth the truth from him either by spring or by screw. He is gone to his account before that Judge at whose tribunal all secrets must appear. Yet, bear him along with you, and see that you take especial care to preserve those dumb instances of his hellish art, till I may require thee to produce them.”
Sir Walter Stewart now left his people to carry the body at their own leisure, and shot away ahead of them, at a pace so furious, as to correspond with the violence of those various stormy feelings which then agitated him. On reaching Drummin, he hurried directly to his lady’s chamber, where he found her putting the last finish to her travelling dress.
“Madam!” said he to her bower-woman, in a voice which sufficiently betrayed the disturbed state of his mind; “my lady will dispense with thine attendance for a brief space – we would be private.”
“What strange conduct is this, Sir Walter?” demanded the lady after her attendant was gone, whilst her voice and manner might have led anyone to believe that she too was not altogether well at ease. “Why shouldst thou have thus sent Jane so rudely forth, when she hath yet so much to pack and to prepare?”
“Because I would fain have some private converse with thee, lady,” said the Knight, solemnly. “Dost thou usually send forth thy page Tomkins on errands of charity so very early as several hours before sunrise?”
“No! – no!” replied the lady in a voice of hesitation. “Such are not indeed, – no, they are not his usual hours to be sent on such errands; but – but – the boy had some distance to go. And then – and – and – and then he hath so much to do ere we depart, that – that – But I wonder much that he is not returning by this time!”
“He is returning now!” said Sir Walter, looking hard and somewhat sternly at her. “But canst thou tell me what he did with a tinder-box, flint, and steel, and matches, concealed in his bosom?”
“Flin – flint – flint and steel saidst thou?” cried the lady, considerably agitated. “How can I say aught about it? Boys are ever full of tricks, and so, I doubt not, is Tomkins. But what hath he told thee himself? Didst thou not question him?”
“As yet he hath told us nothing,” replied the Knight, ambiguously.
“Then all is yet right!” cried the lady, from an energetic impulse of satisfaction, which she could not control. “What is right?” demanded Sir Walter, sternly.
“I would say that – that – that if the boy hath confessed no evil, then ’tis most likely that no evil hath been done.”
“Yea,” replied Sir Walter, gravely, and with deep feeling, “but the direst evil hath been done – a deed which is hardly to be matched in cruelty – the firing of a house, and the burning to death of an innocent lady and her woman!”
“An innocent lady!” exclaimed the wife, again forgetting herself for a moment. “But thou canst not suspect this boy of having done so foul a deed?”
“Most strongly do I suspect him,” replied Sir Walter.
“Nay, nay, ’tis impossible,” said the lady. “What could prompt him to so horrible an act?”
“What could prompt him!” exclaimed Sir Walter, “nothing, methinks, in his own bosom; but canst thou not guess who could have prompted him?”
“Nay, nay, how could I guess?” said the lady, in great trepidation.
“Lady!” said Sir Walter, with great solemnity, after having seated her in one chair and drawn one for himself close to her, where he sat for some moments looking steadily into her pallid and agitated countenance. “Lady! are these the charitable errands on which thou art wont to send this boy?”
“What mean ye, Sir Walter?” demanded the lady, in a state of trembling and alarm which she could not conceal. “The boy has not basely accused me of aught.”
“Sir Walter, your pardon!” said Jane, the lady’s bower woman, bursting at that moment most inopportunely into the room, “Ronald would fain know what you would have done with the corpse of poor Tomkins?”
“The corpse of Tomkins!” cried the lady, starting up and clapping her hands together in an ecstasy of joy, which she could not hide. “Then the boy is no longer alive!”
“He was found dead, it seems, my lady,” said the maid, “and his corpse hath this moment been brought in by Ronald and the rest, ‘Tis fearsome to look upon him. He hath got a deadly contusion and gash on his head.”
“Alas, poor boy!” cried the lady, wiping her dry eyes with her pocket handkerchief, and mustering up all the symptoms of sorrow she could command. “Who can have murdered him? I shall never again meet with so faithful a page!”
“Faithful, indeed, madam,” said Sir Walter, after showing the maid again out of the room, “faithful, indeed, readily to execute those most wicked and murderous orders with which thou didst charge him.”
“Nay, nay, this is too much, Sir Walter,” replied the lady, now gaining full boldness and command of herself from having been thus unexpectedly certified that her page was dead, and that he could now tell no tales; “how canst thou dare to insinuate anything against me?”
“Madam,” said Sir Walter, in a hollow tone, and with considerable agitation of manner, “would it were so that thou couldst with truth speak thus boldy. But, alas! the words I heard thee utter last night to the page – the horrible catastrophe of this morning – the place where it please Providence that he should meet with his accidental death – the direction in which he was running when he received it, and the implements of destruction which were found in his bosom, can leave no rational doubt in my mind as to the person who conceived and directed this most cruel tragedy; and though evidence may be yet lacking to bring the crime fully home to thee, yet, convinced and satisfied as I am of the justice of this charge against thee, I can no longer suffer the head of so foul a murderess to rest upon this bosom. I leave thee to the stings of thine own conscience, and to that repentance which they may produce, believing that God, in his own good time, will make the truth appear, so that thou mayst be made to expiate thy guilt,” and so saying Sir Walter Stewart left the apartment.
“Leave me to my conscience!” cried the lady, with a laugh of derision, after the door was closed, “my conscience will sit easy enough within me, I trow, since my good fortune hath thus got me so innocently rid of mine instrument after he had so well worked my will.”
Sir Walter’s heart was torn by a thousand afflictions. He felt that he would be better anywhere else than at Drummin. Having now no reliance in the fidelity of his wife, he resolved to leave her behind him, and having hastily packed up the important charters of his lands, and some other valuables, he added them to his other baggage. The time now left was just sufficient to enable him to obey the King’s command to present himself before him on a certain day. His people were all waiting in readiness in the courtyard. Without more thought he flung himself into the saddle with a bleeding heart. He was distracted by his feelings, but giving the word “forwards!” he dashed through the gateway at a furious pace, and his troop of men-at-arms and attendants went thundering after him.
Sir Walter Stewart was received in the kindest manner by both the King and Queen. He was earnestly asked, especially by James, why he had not brought his lady with him. As he could not tell the whole truth without making a deadly accusation against her, which he had no means of proving, he was compelled to say that he had left her somewhat indisposed, an answer that produced some good humoured raillery from James, delivered in his wonted familiar manner, and left him, for the time at least, sufficiently well satisfied.
The tournament took place in that beautiful tilting-ground in the rocky valley close under the south-eastern side of the crag upon which Stirling Castle stands, and which is still pointed out by the citizens of the ancient town as the place which was so used in those old times. Though few or none of the discontented nobles appeared, it was yet a very glorious spectacle. The singularity and grandeur of Sir Walter Stewart’s retinue, and their whole appearance, mounted as they were upon the piebald horses, so richly caparisoned, presented by far the finest feature of the royal procession, and swallowed up every other theme of conversation. He was now perhaps the only one to whom it gave but little pleasure, heavy as his heart then was.
“We would know from our Queen who, in her mind, was the prettiest gentleman that appeared at the show to-day,” said the King, after all was over, and that he was in private with her.
“How can your Majesty hesitate one moment in coming to a judgment upon so plain and palpable a question?” demanded the Queen, with great animation. “The ornament of the procession and pageant was undoubtedly Sir Walter Stewart. Who was there who came within an hundred degrees of him? The number of his attendants – the beauty of the animals on which they were mounted – creatures that would seem to have been conjured forth out of the land of faery itself – creatures that moved as if formed out of the rarer elements of nature – and then the splendour of their housings – and, above all, the rich and tasteful dress of the handsome and elegant owner of so much bravery, who is so full of grace and skill in the management of his steed that he bore off the applause of all eyes and the love of all hearts! But what moves you, my sovereign Lord? Methinks that something hath displeased you?”
“Your praises of Sir Walter Stewart would seem to us to be something extravagant,” said the King, considerably disturbed. “Was there no one else there who might have demanded a like portion of your approbation?”
“If your Majesty would have an honest answer from me, I must reply – no one,” said the Queen. “Even the gorgeous and glittering retinue of Cochran, the budding Earl of Mar, who takes upon him as if your Majesty had already dubbed him by that title, was but as gilded clay compared to the well conceived arrangements of the accomplished Sir Walter Stewart, who outshone all others.”
“All others, saidst thou, Margaret? Didst thou not think that we ourselves were of as fair a presence and appearance as thy minion Sir Walter Stewart?” demanded the King, with a pettish and perturbed air and manner.
“Nay, my liege Lord,” replied the Queen, very much distressed to discover that she had thus so innocently offended her husband. “In speaking thus of Sir Walter Stewart, I never dreamed of bringing your royal person, or your royal retinue, into comparison with those of any subject, even with those of Sir Walter Stewart himself, whose individual splendour, was but as a part of that glorious magnificence which was all thine own. Do me not the injustice to judge me so harshly, or so hardly. Could you for one moment suppose that I could compare Sir Walter Stewart to thee, my royal liege and husband? Believe me, that although Sir Walter Stewart is much esteemed by me for his numerous merits, yet he is no minion of mine, and it were equally cruel and unjust of anyone to call him so.”
“‘Tis at least well to hear thee say so,” replied the King, in a sort of half satisfied tone, – and then turning coldly away, he left the apartment, with such an air and manner, that Queen Margaret burst into tears, which it required some thinking and reasoning within herself to enable her to dry up.
Now it was that the facile mind of King James, became prepared to imbibe all the villainies which the designing Cochran could pour into it. Nay, his Majesty became the voluntary and the willing victim of them. he sent for Cochran, made him recapitulate all the particulars of the story of the hawk, shot with the birding-piece, together with that expression of Sir Walter’s which he had formerly so repudiated, but which he now listened to and received as most true and convincing; and the royal ears being thus so unexpectedly open to him, Cochran now scrupled not to tell the King, that, to his certain knowledge, Sir Walter was faithless to his wife. To this story James listened with anxious attention and interest. He remembered the strange combination of Venus with the other planets, and he shuddered at the recollection, as he put it beside his Queen’s declared approbation of Sir Walter Stewart. His Majesty’s manner towards the Knight became again estranged and cold, and his treatment of him unkind; and this being quickly observed by those sordid and selfish wretches, who, with the sagacity of the sharks that follow a diseased ship, or the rats that leave one that is no longer seaworthy, are ever ready to watch and catch at such signs of a courtier’s decaying influence, a regular bond of union was formed against him by all but Sir William Rogers, who could by no means be brought to see that he could benefit his niece by the ruin of her husband. This plot went on, for some considerable time, without producing the slightest suspicion on the part of Sir Walter Stewart, though he could not fail to be sufficiently sensible of the King’s alienation from him.
He was sitting one night alone in his lodgings, when one, in the habit of a serving-man, was announced to him, as craving for a private audience of him, that he might deliver a particular message to him from a gentleman of the court. Having ordered him to be admitted, he was surprised to see enter a person who appeared to be a stranger to him, with a light handsome figure, but having a nose of most unnatural length, hugeness, and redness. He examined him narrowly, yet he still remained satisfied that he had never seen any such person before; but they were no sooner left alone, than the stranger began to speak, and Sir Walter recognised him immediately.
“Trust me, Stewart, it is not without some personal risk that I have thus adventured to hold communion with thee,” said the stranger.
“Ramsay!” exclaimed Sir Walter Stewart, in amazement. “In such a disguise as this, I should never have discovered thee, but for thy voice.”
“Then must I take care to keep that under,” said Ramsay, in a half whisper. “But time is precious. Thy life is sought for! To-morrow, nay, even an hour hence, all attempt to escape may be unavailing, and I, even I, may suffer for this my attempt to save a friend.”
“I well know the danger that attends such a duty,” said Sir Walter, ” and I would not for worlds that thou shouldst incur it.”
“Aye, there thou hast said it,” replied Ramsay. “I know well enough what thou wouldst hint at, – thy service to Albany! Nay, start not! Thy secret will never be the worse for me. But, nevertheless, that is one of the suspicions that is harboured against thee.”
“Suspicions!” exclaimed Sir Walter, “What suspicions?”
“In the first place, the King hath taken up a jealousy against thee regarding the Queen,” replied Ramsay. “Then some strange story hath reached his ears from Cochran, who, by the way, hath been this day created Earl of Mar, regarding some treasonable words thou didst drop in his hearing in the shooting of a hawk with a birding-piece. Besides this, Torfefan, the master of fence, hath said, that thou didst once step in to save the Earl of Huntly from his just vengeance, for speaking treasonably of the King and his courtiers; whence it is argued, that thou art in secret league with the discontented nobles. This is corroborated by that rascal, Hommil, the tailor, who says he was with Torfefan at the time. To this accusation, touching thy consorting with the nobles, Andrew, the Astrologer, bears his support, for he says that he one night found thee and the Earl in deep conference, alone in the hostel. And, finally, as I have already hinted, thou art, somehow or other, shrewdly suspected of having aided in, if not contrived the escape of the Duke of Albany from Edinburgh Castle. But besides all this, Sir William Rogers, who hath been long thy friend, hath at last gone over to those who are malcontent with thee, because he hath had letters from his niece, complaining that she had been disgracefully and cruelly treated by thee, and that, too, but a few days before she gave birth to thy son and heir; and that, in consequence of this tine evil treatment of her, she hath applied for divorce from thee. But what is all this, and why should I waste time in such a recapitulation of forgeries? Thy life, my dear Stewart, is sought for! Ere to-morrow’s dawn thou wilt be a prisoner, and how soon afterwards thou mayest be numbered with the dead, the fate of the last Mar may teach thee. Fly then, my dear friend, for thy life! I dare not tarry here longer. Get into thy saddle with all manner of haste, and see that thou sparest not thy spurs! And so God give thee good speed till we meet in better times.”
Ramsay gave him a warm embrace, and then hurried out of the room and the house. And Sir Walter Stewart, after packing up his writings and other valuables, cautiously and quietly summoned his people, and, getting into their saddles, they rode slowly out of the gate of the town and across the ancient bridge over the river Forth, the guards readily believing them when they said they were bound on the King’s business. But they no sooner found themselves on the wide and flat carselands to the north of the river Forth than they made the hoofs of their steeds thunder across them with the rapid sweep of a whirlwind. Nor was this more than necessary either, for the distant shouts of people and the trampling of horses in pursuit were heard behind them. But the darkness of that night enabled them to throw them off, and, by forced journeys, they in a few days reached Huntly Castle, where they were joyfully and hospitably received by Sir Walter’s friend the Earl. Although the people who pursued them very soon returned without success, they were enabled to carry back certain information as to Sir Walter Stewart’s place of retreat; and this was no sooner known than the newly made Earl of Mar, armed with the Royal authority, dispatched an especial messenger upon a fleet horse to go directly to Drummin as the bearer of certain royal letters to the Lady of Stradawn, together with a private communication from himself, which was conceived in these terms:-
“To the Lady Juliet Manvers, once called the Lady Stradawn, these, with speed.
“Most beauteous Lady, and my soul’s idol! Thou wilt herewith receive the dispensation of his Holiness Pope Sixtus the Fourth, annulling thy marriage with that traitor, Sir Walter Stewart of Stradawn, so that thou mayest now look forward to be speedily raised to the high title and dignity of Countess of Mar, as well as to those yet more elevated honours to which the growing edifice of my fortunes may yet uplift thee. But enough of this for the present. All will depend on thine own brave and steady deportment. Thou hast herewith sent thee, moreover, the King’s royal letters, strictly enjoining thee to defend the Castle of Drummin against all comers, and to hold it for his sovereign Majesty; and, above all, on no account to admit the traitor, Sir Walter Stewart, within its walls; the which, seeing that I built and repaired them, I full well know, are stout enough to resist any engine which he or others may be able to bring against them when defended by so bold a heart as thine. To aid thee in this, and to enable thee to control the rebellious vassals of the Strath, a picked body of men are already on their march, and will be with thee in a very few days after these presents come to thy hand. So use thine authority like one who is destined to the great honours that await thee, and thus show thyself worthy of him who is the architect of thy fortunes – who is thy devoted adorer and slave, the deeply love-stricken
Of all this the gallant Sir Walter knew nothing, save that the proclamation of his being declared traitor, and the public annunciation of the dissolution of his marriage had been so generally diffused that they came to him through the thousand mouths of common fame.
It was this last piece of intelligence that made him gather up his strength from that dejection to which he had for some time been disposed to yield. The very thought that his alliance with this now detested woman was thus severed and annihilated for ever gave him new life. But, alas! the recollection that she to whose wrongs, to whose sorrows, and to whose penitence he would now have wished to have held out the right hand of consolation was now no longer in life to receive it gave him fresh pangs of grief and despondency. He was resolved, however, to proceed to dispossess the murderess from the hearth of his fathers, and to take possession of his own fortress in defiance of the King’s proclamation, being well aware that the same stout hands and sharp claymores in Stradawn which had ever proved so faithful to him would still enable him, if once in possession of his little place of strength, to laugh at all the King’s heralds and parchments throughout broad Scotland.
It was after a long and tedious march that Sir Walter Stewart and is followers were seen winding up the valley of the Aven one beautiful afternoon. The shouts of the thinly scattered population rang through the woods from cottage ot cottage as the news spread that their own knight and chieftain was returning. All turned out and crowded after him to welcome himself, to talk with their friends in the ranks of his retinue, and to glut thier eyes with the splendid pageant presented to them by his gallant array, and his richly caparisoned piebald horses. The castle arose before them upon its level and elevated green terrace, and his troop was moving slowly forward to ford the river Livat, where it runs in a broad and shallow stream along the base of the promontory on which the fortress stands, when they, and especially their horses, were suddenly startled by the loud roar of a falconet fired from the walls, the echo from which ran thundering along the faces of the neighbouring mountains, whilst the bullet discharged from it whistled over their heads and went crashing through the boughs of a great tree behind them. A small plump of spears appeared immediately afterwards without the walls, and ranged themselves along the edge of the terrace above. But although somewhat surprised by these warlike and hostile demonstrations, Sir Walter moved boldly onwards to the river side.
“Whosoever thou beest, thou hast already had one warning,” cried a loud and hoarse voice from amid the spearmen on the terrace. “I bid thee beware of a second, till we know something of thee and of thy folk.”
“We would hold parley,” replied the Knight. “Friends, ye know not whom ye war against. Is Sir Walter Stewart to be held as an enemy before his own Castle of Drummin?”
“We know naught of Sir Walter,” shouted the other. “We know not Sir Walter Stewart, nay, nor any other Stewart save our liege lord and master, James Stewart, the third of that name, King of Scotland, in whose name we bid thee be warned and keep off.”
“Who is he who so rudely challenges the Castle of Drummin?” exclaimed a shrill woman’s voice from the walls. “If anyone would have peaceful speech with us, let him advance with a moderate escort till he comes within earshot.”
“By’r Lady, I would have thee beware, Sir Knight,” said Ronald, the especial esquire of Sir Walter’s body. “If thou art bold enough to go nearer, thou mayest come within something more than earshot. I will advance and hold parley with them, and I shall be safe enow too, for they will see that they can make nothing by any deed of traitory done against such an one as me.”
“No, no, Ronald; I will take my chance,” said Sir Walter, in a melancholy tone. “My life is now but of little value to me. Let you and one more go with me, and let the rest stand fast here till we return to them.”
Sir Walter Stewart and his two attendants now separated from their party – forded the river, and rode their horses up the steep diagonal path that led up to the terrace on the promotory, while the plump of spearmen were called in and the gates closed. On the outer wall of the barbican stood the Lady of Stradawn with her baby in her arms, and surrounded by a group of faces which were altogether strange to the Knight, or those who were with him.
“How comes it, lady, that I, Sir Walter Stewart, the rightful owner of this castle of Drummin, should be thus delayed in entering within mine own walls?” demanded the Knight. “Give orders that instant entrance may be yielded to me and mine, that there may be no unseemly warring and blood between those who, if no longer one flash, were at least once so united by the holy church.”
“I no longer know Sir Walter Stewart!” cried the lady, in a lofty and imperious tone and manner. “I had indeed once the misfortune to be linked to him, of which union behold the sad fruits in this wretched babe! But my duty to my Sovereign, as well as my duty to the Earl of Mar, who is soon to be my husband requires that I should now know him no longer, save as a traitor to his King, as well as a traitor to me – alike disloyal to both. Begone, then! This fortalice is now held by me for James Third, King of Scotland, and entrance herein thou shalt never have, whilst I live to bar thee out.”
“lady, thou art bold,” replied Sir Walter, coolly, “but remember, that stoutly garrisoned and well provisioned as thou doubtless art, we can soon raise willing hearts and hands enew in Stradawn, to force thee to a speedy surrender.”
“Thou shalt do so then at the price of the murder of this thy child!” exclaimed the lady, lifting up the poor little innocent on high. “If but a single arrow be discharged against us, the tender flesh of this thy babe shall be the clout that shall receive it – and if but one burning brand be thrown, this shall be the very first food given to the conflagration. It is thy child. I hate it as being thine. No mother’s feelings, therefore, shall hinder me from using its little body as the bulwark of our safety, and as the rampart of our security!”
“Fiend that thou art!” cried Sir Walter. “Let not harm fall on the innocent babe of thy womb! Give me but my child, and I shall retire and leave thee scaithless, and to such peace as thy guilty soul may command. Oh, harm not the babe, but let me clasp it in these arms!”
“Ha, ha, ha! a pretty nurse thou wouldst have me provide for the urchin!” cried the lady bitterly. “No, no, its body is our most potent shield, I tell thee, and thou shalt never win in here, till thou hast opened thy bloody way through the portal of its little heart. Shoot, if thou wilt, then, for this shall be thy mark.”
“Oh, fiend! Oh, demon in woman’s shape!” cried Sir Walter, in anguish. “How was I ever inveigled into thy toils? Terribly, indeed, am I punished for the sins of my youth! But thou wilt yet meet with thy reward! Fiend that thou art, I say thou shalt -”
“nay, then, thou shalt have thy reward, and that straightway!” cried the lady, interrupting him. “Shoot, archers! let him have his reward, promptly and powerfully delivered from your well-strung bows! Shoot, I say, archers!”
A flight of arrows instantly came whizzing about them. Several of these rang upon their mail-shirts, others slightly wounded their horses, but one found its way through a faulty link, to the very heart of Sir Walter Stewart’s second attendant, who fell lifeless from his horse. Again came the arrows thick upon them, their barbed points prying about them, as it were, like wasps, as if in search of any weaker part or interval, through which they might most easily and certainly sting them to death. There was no time to be lost. The faithful Ronald seized Sir Walter Stewart’s rein, and urging on the Knight’s horse and his own at full speed, he galloped straight off along the terrace, and so he succeeded in placing his master entirely beyond all hazard, ere yet the bewilderment of his keen and poignant feelings permitted him very well to know what had befallen him. And then, leading his horse in a slanting direction, down the steep and grassy slope, and across the river, they joined their party, and drew off under several ineffectual discharges of the ill-served and ill-directed falconet.
With a heart depressed by grief and mortification, Sir Walter Stewart had now nothing left for it, but to return on his way to Huntly Castle. As he moved down the valley, the roofless walls of poor Alice Asher’s cottage arrested his eyes, rising bare and blackened from among the wood, on the brow of the isolated hill where they stood. The whole of the harrowing scene of that murderous burning recurred to his recollection. His soul was filled with affliction, and his heart became heavy, and sank within him, from the poignant admonitions of that conscience. which plainly and honestly told him, that if he had sown more honourable and virtuous conduct in his youth, he might now have been reaping pure and unalloyed happiness, instead of that misery which threatened to cling to him, like a poisoned garment, to the end of his own life: that all sunshine had departed from him for ever; and that all now before him was dark and chilling winter. the only hope he could dare to cherish now. was that of obtaining mercy, through the merits of a blessed Saviour, and a deep and heartfelt repentance. Giving way to the full indulgence of such thoughts as these, his heart began to sicken at the world. In sorrow and in silence he pursued his way towards Huntly Castle; and, long ere he had reached the residence of his friend the Earl, he had taken up his firm and unalterable resolution.
Acting up on this, he craved a private interview with the Earl that very evening; and, having retired to his apartment with him, he unfolded his mind fully to his friendly ear – have over to him the charge of all his papers and charters, and prepared everything for executing a deed, by which his Lordship was made sole trustee over his estates, for the behoof of his infant son, with full powers to manage and direct all matters belonging to them, and, at the same time, making the Earl himself heir of all, in the event of the child’s death. Some days afterwards, he put the last formal signature and seal to all this, – not without great, but vain expostulation on the part of Lord Huntly, – and, having done so, he declared his fixed determination to depart the very next morning for the Continent, where he had resolved to bury himself for ever within the cloisters of a monastery.
That night, previous to Sir Walter Stewart’s departure, was a melancholy one for the two friends; and their parting next morning was still more sad.
The Knight’s horse and attendants were already drawn up in the court-yard, and the Earl’s men were thronging around them to bid them farewell, when a horseman rode into it, bearing a woman on a pad behind his saddle. the lady was veiled, and muffled up in a mantle; but, though the form was sufficiently light and delicate, and that of the youth also much more compact and athletic than gross or heavy, the good grey steed that bore this double weight, showed unequivocal symptoms of the long, rapid, and distressing journey he had undergone.
“Ha! we are yet in time?” cried the young man in a tone of enquiry. “Sir Walter Stewart is still here, is he not?”
“He is still here; but he is on the very eve of his departure for a foreign land,” replied the eqsuire, in a grave and pensive tone and manner.
“I would fain speak a few words to him,” said the youth, lighting down, and then lifting the lady from her pillion.
“I fear that may hardly be,” said the esquire; “these last minutes of parting converse between Sir Walter Stewart and the Earl of Huntly, are, I warrant me, every one of them worth a purse of gold.”
“So are they all the more valuable to me for the doing of mine errand,” said the youth, with an air of command, which seemed naturally to belong to him. “Here, take this ring, so please thee. Take it to Sir Walter Stewart, and say that its owner bides without, and would fain have a short audience of him ere he goes.”
“I will do your bidding, fair sir,” said the squire, courteously; “though I know not well how mine embassage may be received; for, if I mistake not, the Earl and the Knight are shut up alone together in deep and important conference.”
The esquire was in the right. The parting moments of these friends were precious, and occupied in most interesting talk. The earl of Huntly had been using them in pouring out all his eloquence to induce Sir Walter Stewart, even yet, at this the eleventh hour, to abandon his resolution of going into a monastery, and to prevail on him to remain at home, and to resume the rights and the control of his estates. He urged it upon him, that he owed it to his country, as well as to his just vengeance against Cochran, and th King’s other favourites, to join with him and the rest of the nobles in the plots which they were hatching for their destruction.
“It will be a sweet revenge for thee,” said the Earl; “a most sweet revenge, I say, for thee, to have James suing to thee for mercy, for the lives of those very minions who have so conspired together for thy ruin.”
“Nay, press me not, dear Huntly,” replied Sir Walter Stewart; “though the King hath been blind and fickle, yet I cannot forget his long-exerted kindness to me. And as for vengeance, I trust that the exercise to which I have subjected my soul for these last few nights, hath conjured all such unholy and unchristian passions forth from my bosom. But to extinguish in thee all farther vain hope that I may be brought to yield to thy friendly entreaty, I will now tell thee that I last night took a solemn vow, on my knees, with mine eyes upon the blessed crucifix, and my right hand upon the open Evangile, that I would henceforth flee from the world, and dedicate myself to God.”
“With such a vow upon thee,” replied Huntly, – “with a vow so solemnly taken, I can urge thee no more.”
“Then let my parting words entreat thee not to harm the King,” said Sir Walter Stewart. “Harm not the King, and hurt not one hair of the head of Ramsay of Balmain, for he is a gentleman, and my very dear friend, and one indeed to whose friendly warning I have owed my life!”
“There is no intention of hurting James,” said Huntly, coldly; “and as for Ramsay, thou hast said enough, in these last few words of thine, to make me sacrifice my life to save him, if he should be brought into peril.”
“Thanks, thanks, my noble friend,” said Sir Walter, “this promise of thine gives me comfort in the certainty of Ramsay’s safety.”
“Who knocks there?” cried Lord Huntly. “Did I not say that we must be private?”
“A messenger with some errand of moment for Sir Walter Stewart,” replied the Squire.
“Come in, and tell us who and what he may be,” replied Lord Huntly.
“He desired me to deliver this ring into Sir Walter’s own hand,” said the Squire, entering and presenting it to the Knight.
“Ha”” cried the Knight, the moment he threw his eyes on it, “give him entrance without a moment’s delay. My Lord, this is my boy Charley Stewart, who went abroad in the service of the royal Duke of Albany. I thank the saints that he is alive! I rejoice that I shall once more behold him, for I feared that something fatal had befallen him. It is well that he hath thus come, so opportunely, else, in my bewilderment, he might have lost his share of that which he hath so well deserved at my hands.”
“It is well, indeed, that he hath come, then,” replied the Earl, “for, if I mistake not, he is a young man worthy of the stock he hath sprung from. The Duke of Albany, I remember, spoke well of him from France, some little time after his arrival there.”
“His Highness vouchsafed to do so,” replied Sir Walter. “But it is so long since, that now I burn to behold the boy once more, and to see, with mine own eyes, what improvement foreign nurture hath done on him.”
“And I,” said the Earl, “am especially curious to hear how his royal master the Duke hath sped, and whether he may yet talk of returning to his country, and trusting his person to the protection of the Scottish nobles. But here comes the youth.”
“Charley, my boy! – my son! thank God that thou art alive! I rejoice to behold thee again once more!” cried Sir Walter, hurrying forward to embrace him, with deep emotion. “I am glad, most glad, thou art come!”
“Your blessing, father!” cried Charley, who having entered the room with the veiled lady on his arm, quitted her at the door, and rushed forward to meet and to throw himself on his knees before Sir Walter.
“Thou hast it, boy!” replied the Knight, raising him up, and clasping him tenderly to his breast. “Thou hast it most sincerely. recent melancholy events have now made thee doubly dear to me. But say, why is it that I have heard nought of thee for so long a time? Why is it that thou wert as silent in thy communication as if thou hadst been dead? Often did I of late seek tidings of thee of De Tremouille, but so much in vain did I seek them, that I more than half believed that some fatal calamity had befallen thee. Come, say how hath it fares with thee and thy royal master, and where, and wherefore, hast thou left him?”
“With your leave, dear father, and that of this noble earl,” replied Charley. “I shall hastily run over the outline of our history. – A fair wind bore us to France, where we were soon transported to Paris. There we were well received, and well lodged, at the sign of the Cock, in the street of St. Martin, and all manner of expenses were defrayed from the French treasury, for the Duke and his attendants, to the number of twelve persons. We lived a merry life, mingling in all the shows and pageants of the French court, and proving our horsemanship with the French cavaliers, with no manner of disgrace on my humble part, and with great honour on the part of my royal master. But soon after this, some paltry jealousies and suspicions broke out against us, fostered, no doubt, by certain Scots, who had the secret ear of the King of France, and the secret authority of James of Scotland. Prudence led the royal Duke to travel in the provinces for a time, and under the disguise of an errant knight, he wandered about, with me as his esquire, doing feats of arms everywhere. Then it was that De Tremouille could report nothing of me, for I was altogether in disguise, doing the most agreeable service to my high and most kind master.”
“How camest thou to leave so good and honourable a service then?” demanded the Knight.
“Simply on this ground,” replied Charley. “A certain correspondence began to arise between my royal master and Edward of England. Whilst this was going on, the Duke, who always showed most kindly towards me, took me one day into his private apartment, and told me in confidential secrecy, that a certain treaty was on foot between him and the English king, with the intent on their uniting to make war upon Scotland. I was largely promised wealth and honours if I would follow his Highness to England. But, albeit that I should have been fain to have followed him all over the world, I could in nowise bring myself to fight against the country of my birth, or against that country which held my father, and whose king I held to be my father’s friend – that country which held her – a – a- that country, I mean, which was a – dear to me form many a tender recollection – and that country, above all, which held my much loved and most affectionate and most revered mother.”
“Poor, kind, and amiable boy!” murmured Sir Walter Stewart, groaning deeply, “little knowest thou what a shock thou hast yet to receive!”
“I could not fight against such a land,” continued Charley, without observing this scarcely audible interruption. “And on my so declaring this, and setting forth my reasons before my royal master, he kindly, and, as he was well pleased to say, with regret, gave me his princely licence to depart; and as he had little to bestow, he honoured me by putting this massive gold chain around my neck, and I parted from him, after receiving his gracious thanks for the fidelity of my services, and with many friendly commendations on the Duke’s part to you. I left him in the more honourable, yet not more faithful, hands of Monipeny and Concressault, who are now with him. Having taken ship and reached the shores of Scotland, I made the best of my way to my native Strath, and there, learning that thou hadst but recently left it, I hasted, with all speed, to follow thee hither.”
“Thou hast well judged, and well acted, my dear boy!” said the Knight, embracing him. “By mine honour, but thou dost prove, by thy words, that thy head hath gained as much in solid sense as thy person and manners have gathered in strength and grace. My Lord of Huntly, since Charley hath thus, by God’s mercy, turned up alive, thou must now see done for him, that which I, in such a case provided, as I already told thee. To thee then I leave it to see him duly enfeoffed in the place and lands of Kilmaichly, on a part of which he was born, and this I have bestowed upon him and his heirs in property for ever.”
“Be assured I shall see this desire of thine most strictly executed,” said Lord Huntly.
“Thanks, thanks, most gracious father!” cried Charles Stewart, throwing himself again upon Sir Walter’s neck. “Yet would I consider it a far greater boon to be allowed to follow thee in whatever emprise thou mayest now be bound to.”
“That which I am bound after, boy, is too solemn for thy years,” replied Sir Walter Stewart, gravely. “Thou art as yet too young to quit the haunts of men, and sins hast thou but few to drive thee thence, unless mine be visited upon thee. But, hold! thou wouldst seem to have a fair companion there. Tell me, I pray thee, hast thou brought a French wife with thee? Alas, rash youth, thou knowest not what perils are to be found within the silken meshes of the toils of matrimony! Hath not thine own past experience of the fickle nature of woman cured thee of love?”
“Nay, nay, my good and honoured father,” replied Charley, “so far as I am concerned, I have learned, to my great joy, though to my sad remorse and contrition, that woman’s love, when pure and virtuous, is inextinguishable by all the storms and tides of adverse fate. My Rosa was true, and she yet lives for me and me alone, and I was the rash insane tool of one who was more an evil spirit than a woman. Thanks be to God, too, that I have not the crime of murder on my conscience, for I have learned that my benefactor, Sir Piers Gordon, yet lives.”
“Sir Piers Gordon!” exclaimed Huntly, in surprise, “Art thou then the youth who had so nearly deprived me of so valuable a kinsman and dependant?> Trust me, young man, had the blow been fatal, I could not easily have forgiven thee.”
“My Lord, I could never have forgiven myself,” said Charley. “But now I hope to prove to Sir Piers my gratitude, as well as my penitence, if he will vouchsafe to pardon me, and to receive me again into his friendship.”
“I think thou mayest safely reckon upon him,” said Huntly, “especially with my intercession for thee.”
“Is this thy Rosa then, boy?” demanded Sir Walter Stewart, pointing to the veiled lady. “And is she already thy wedded wife? Why all tis mystery? Lead her hither, that we may see and become acquainted with her.”
“It is not Rosa,” replied Charley, solemnly, as he retired to the farther part of the room, and led forward the lady trembling beneath her veil. “it is not Rosa, nor is Rosa as yet my wife. she whom I would now introduce to you is no wife, nor hath she ever been bound by any such holy ties – yet would she crave thy blessing, and one kind word of comfort from thee,” and with this he gently removed the veil from her head.
“Holy Virgin, and sacred ministers of Almighty Providence, what do I behold!” exclaimed Sir Walter Stewart, in amazement, “Alice Asher! – and in life! My beloved Alice, can it indeed be thee?” and then rushing forward to embrace her, he cried – “It is, it is my Alice!”
“Oh! this more than repays me for a life of wretchedness,” said Alice, weeping, and warmly responding to his emotions. “A mother’s pride, which I have in my boy, would not let me remain behind him; and the priest gave me licence. I wished to behold him in his father’s arms, and my fond and foolish heart hath been gratified beyond its deserts. May blessings be showered down upon thee for what thou hast done!” continued she, sinking on her knees before him, “may blessings here, and eternal happiness hereafter, by thy portion!”
“Rise, my fair, my beloved, my much injured Alice!” cried the Knight, raising her gently up, and again tenderly embracing her. “This is indeed a day of joy! But tell me how it is that mine eyes thus gladly behold thee, when they have now so long wept for thy supposed death by that murderous and traitorous fire?”
“Providence interfered to save my worthless life,” replied Alice. “It so happened, that on the very evening before the burning, I chanced to go up into Glen-Livat to visit the good widow MacDermot and her daughter Rosa, whose society was always balm to me, and especially so because their favourite talk was ever of mine absent Charley. As I was thus going away from home, my serving-maiden took in a girl, a friend of hers, to be company for her loneliness, and thus both these innocent creatures perished, whilst I escaped. But the ways of Heaven are inscrutable. Thus is was that two half-consumed corpses were discovered, which led to the belief of my death; and then it was that terror for the Lady of Drummin made me dread to contradict the rumour, and compelled me to live in concealment.”
“Enough it is that thou art yet alive, my beloved Alice!” cried Sir Walter Stewart, carried altogether away by the wildest feelings of joy. “Dearest, we shall yet be happy! – Thou shalt yet be -”
“Oh, say! – speak!” said Alice, greatly agitated. “What – what wouldst thou say?”
“What – what have I said?” continued Sir Walter, sinking in tone and manner into those of deep despondency. “What! – said I that we should yet be happy? – that thou shouldst yet be my wife. Alas! – no, no, no – I forgot, It cannot be. My vow – my vow – my solemn vow, already registered in Heaven! Would that I had known all this ere I had made it! Would that I had but known that thou wert still alive! But now, even these regrets and repinings become sinful. The hand of Providence is in it, and God’s holy will be done. The vow – the solemn vow which I recorded in Heaven must be fulfilled. Alice, dearest of human beings, I cannot now be thine! I have henceforth dedicated myself to the service of the Most High. I depart this very day to make good my vow, by throwing myself into a foreign monastery.”
“The will of the Lord be done!” said Alice Asher in a hollow voice of intense suffering, whilst, pale and trembling, she bowed her head and sank into a chair, where a deluge of tears gave vent to her emotions. “The will of the Lord be done! And why should it be otherwise? I have more than deserved all those sufferings and trials, which God, in his justice and wisdom, hath been pleased to bring upon me, and why should I wickedly murmur? As thou sayest, the finger of God is in it. May he sanctify his chastisement for our salvation, and so let me cheerfully kiss the rod of his fatherly correction.”
“Angel that thou art!” cried Sir Walter, greatly moved. “Oh, what wouldst thou not have been, but for me, villain that I was! Thy sin was mine. On my head must fall the whole of thy guilt. Thou wert young and pure, as a creature of heaven. On my head must fall all the wrath of an offended God; and mine, therefore, must be the penance. Return then to resume thine innocent and peaceful life. Thou hast a firm and able protector in thy son, whose strong arm, and upright heart, shall shield thee from all harm. In due time, he must marry Rosa MacDermot, and thou mayst yet live happily to see thy grandchildren growing up, like goodly plants, around thee. Pray for me in thy private hours of converse with the Almighty, that he may yet extend his mercy to me, a repentant sinner. My orisons shall never cease to rise for thee. And now, this last holy kiss may, without guilt, be permitted to us. May God for ever bless and preserve thee! And – now – now – farewell for ever!”
Alice flew into his arms with a frantic hysterical laugh; and after a long, a silent, and a last embrace, Sir Walter Stewart, gently unfolding himself from her, rushed with a broken heart from the apartment, followed by his son and Lord Huntly, leaving Alice Asher, who sank helpless into a chair, pale, motionless, and silent, as if death had suddenly fallen upon her. The Knight sprang into his saddle; Huntly silently but warmly squeezed his hand; Charley Stewart embraced his manly limb, as he put his foot into the stirrup – and his father stooped from his seat and tenderly kissed his brow and blessed him, ere he dashed his spur-rowels into the sides of his steed, and galloped out of the courtyard, with his followers behind him.
Let us now return to the Castle of Drummin. On that very night in which the depressed and repentant Sir Walter was solemnly dedicating himself at Huntly Castle to the service of God, she who had been his lady retired to rest in her chamber, with her infant child placed in a cradle beside her couch. A lamp which burned on a table near her enabled her to read over again the letter which she had received from Cochran, the new Earl of Mar; and, after she had done so, she laid her head back upon the pillow to ruminate upon its contents, and to resign herself to the enjoyment of those visions of ambition to which it had given birth. By degrees sleep overpowered her, and her waking thoughts began gradually to resolve themselves into wild, floating, and ill-connected dreams. After many strange and abrupt changes, she imagined that she was led to the altar by the Earl of Mar. Both were dressed in all the pomp that befitted the rank of such a bridegroom and bride. The King and Queen were present, and all things were prepared for the nuptial ceremony. But when the marriage service proceeded, both the Earl and Lady made vain and ineffectual efforts to join hands. As she struggled to accomplish this, she suddenly perceived that the gorgeous golden collar which surrounded the Earl’s neck was changed into a halter od horse hair. She stared with wonder upon him; and, as she did so, his coarse, ruddy features became pale and fixed and corpse-like, and he was lifted slowly from before her, as if some powerful and unseen hand had raised him from the ground by the alter, until he disappeared altogether from her sight. She struggled fearfully. The priests, the King, and the Queen, and the other personages who were present at the bridal faded away before her. Her heart grew cold within her from fear and very loneliness. Suddenly the candles on the altar, and the other lights in the church, blazed up miraculously till their pointed flames were blunted and flattened on the vaulted roof. She endeavoured to shriek aloud, but no utterance could she give to her voice, whilst horrid laughter echoed through the surrounding aisles, and demoniac faces mocked and gibbered at her from behind the massive pillars. A complete and most unaccountable change immediately took place, and she beheld a burning cottage before her. Screams were heard from within the walls, and she would have fain shut her eyes from the sight, and stopped her ears from the sound; but she could do neither. She was in an agony which no human tongue can describe. At length the figure of a woman of angelic beauty and expression of countenance and ethereal airiness of form, shot upwards as if borne to heaven by the rising column of fire. The screams continued from within the burning walls. They pierced her ears horribly, and the flames darted around her on all sides, scorching her face and hands and setting fire to her garments; and still all her efforts were vain to move herself form the spot so as to withdraw from their influence. Half suffocated, she struggled and toiled to escape them; and being at last awakened by her efforts, she was for one moment conscious that she was in the midst of a real conflagration. In that one moment was concentrated the whole remorse of her wicked life – and it was terrible! She heard the cried of her perishing babe; and being herself so choked as to be unable for exertion, she speedily became and easy and helpless prey to the devouring element. The drapery of her bed, which she had put aside in order to read the letter, had fallen back into its place; and having thus caught fire from the lamp, the flames had thence communicated to the cradle and to the bed; and by the time the alarm of the conflagration had been given throughout the Castle and traced to its source, the lady and her innocent babe, and everything within the apartment, had been consumed to ashes.
After such an occurrence as this, it may easily be conceived that the gates of Drummin were thrown open to the Earl of Huntly the moment he appeared with a strong force before it. he stayed but a few days there to arrange such business as his new possessions demanded of him. The most prominent and important part of this was to see Charles Stewart regularly enfeoffed in his property of Kilmaichly, after which he bestowed knighthood upon him; and having accomplished all this, the Earl hastened southwards to lend his powerful aid in perfecting those plots which were then ripening among the discontented nobles, and which terminated with the summary execution of Cochran and the other minions of King James the Third over the Bridge of Lauder. That the life or person of Ramsay was preserved untouched may have been in a great measure owing to the last parting injunctions of his friend Sir Walter Stewart.
The new Knight of Kilmaichly quickly proceeded to build himself a suitable dwelling, and that was no sooner in a habitable state, than he brought that courtship, which he began with Rosa MacDermot, before she was carried off from the harvest-rig by the eagle, to a proper period, by a mutual submission of the parties to that holy yoke, which was imposed upon them by the priest, who then lived at Dounan. The poor old Howlet’s prophecy was thus verified, by Rosa MacDermot thus becoming a landed lady, and marrying a man with a knight’s spurs at his heels, and this, too, precisely according to the happy interpretation which the Lady Kilmaichly had herself put upon it. Among the few people who were bidden to the marriage, and certainly one who was by no means the least happy or jovial among the company, was the good old knight, Sir Piers Gordon. Nor was his niece the Lady Marcella, absent; though, strange to say, she was very much metamorphosed from what she once was. Some time after those events which caused the flight of Charley Stewart to Edinburgh, and which deprived her of all further hope of him, she was one day riding with her uncle’s retainers, when they fell in accidentally with a party of Catteranes. She charged them boldly at the head of her people, and in the midst of the melée she had one eye scooped out by the point of a lance, and half of her nose and a considerable portion of one cheek, carried off by the slash of a claymore; and, had it not been for the intrepidity of an honest, stalwart, broad-shouldered, and wide-chested man-at-arms, who came to her rescue, beat off the enemy single-handed, and then carried her off in his brawny arms, it is probable that she might have died gloriously upon the battle-field. Recovering from her wounds, the bravery of this hero touched her heart; and, notwithstanding the loss of so many of her charms the bold yeoman, declaring that there was quite enough left of her to make a very fine woman still, and being altogether undeterred by her Amazonian temper, he had no scruple in buckling with the heiress of Sir Piers Gordon. Although a good-natured fellow, he was by no means a man to be bullied. A very great reformation was therefore speedily worked upon her disposition; and by the time she appeared as a guest at the marriage of Sir Charles Stewart of Kilmaichly, she exhibited the countenance of a gorgon, with a temper and spirit subdued and gentle as those of a lamb.
I have little to add now, gentlemen, to this true history, except to recount to you a very curious occurrence that took place soon after Sir Charles Stewart and his lady were married and comfortably settled at Kilmaichly, and which threatened to interrupt the peacefulness of their lives for a time. A dispute arose between Sir Charles’s people and those of the Laird of Ballindalloch, about the march between the farm of Ballanluig, belonging to Kilmaichly, and Craigroy, which was the property of his powerful neighbour. The House of Ballindalloch being likely to prove too strong for him in a matter which he foresaw must probably be determined by the arm of force, the prudent Sir Charles took the precaution to send a messenger into Athol, to his father’s relative, the Laird of Fincastle, craving his aid. To his no small comfort, his petition was readily granted, and Fincastle sent him sixty well-armed men, and a capital piper, to stir up their souls to battle. Sir Charles being now in every respect a match for his opponent, turned out bravely to make good his plea, whilst Ballindalloch came with an equal force to dispute the point. Each of the two parties reached its respective ground at night, with the intent of joining battle by the earliest dawn. That of Sir Charles Stewart took up its position in and about a kiln, whilst Ballindalloch’s little army was similarly posted at or near a house at no great distance. Both sides were breathing horrid war, and anticipating dreadful slaughter when daylight should enable them to see each other, for the night was dark as pitch. Some time before daybreak, the lightning flashed, and a fearful peal of thunder crashed suddenly over their heads, so that every man present was stricken with awe. A waterspout then broke upon the hills, and came down upon them so tremendously as to produce a roaring noise as if a sea had been descending upon them. Both sides were appalled, and sinking in terror upon their knees, they remained in that position until the morning dawned. By that time the sky had cleared, and the sun rose smiling; and then it was that they beheld by his light that a large and frightful ravine had been cut out between them by the waterspout, where nothing of the sort had existed before. Both parties felt that Providence had interfered to settle their dispute, and to save the effusion of human blood. Accordingly the two leaders at once agreed that the ravine thus strangely and miraculously opened by the sudden descent of this transient torrent from the hills should be the march between their properties in all time coming; and thus, they who came to the ground as deadly foes, separated as sworn brethren and allies.
Thus it seemed that Heaven itself had ruled that peace should be secured to those who so well merited it, and who so well knew how to enjoy it; and the felicity of Sir Charles Stewart and his lady was complete. Years rolled on, and still the sunshine of their countenances – aye, and the sunshine of the faces of their merry children – would often conjure up an angelic smile of gratitude upon the pale and pensive features of Alice Asher. Nor were the grateful feelings of this highly favoured family expended in barren expressions, for all around them were loud in praise of their hospitality, benevolence, and charity.
In the course of some generations Kilmaichly fell to an heiress, and the Laird of Ballindalloch having married her, she carried the estate into that family, where it now remains.