Bruce's party were now more than ever straitened for provisions, since they had to depend almost entirely upon such fish as they might catch, as it was dangerous to stray far away in pursuit of deer. Archie, however, with his bow and arrows ventured several times to go hunting in order to relieve the sad condition of the ladies, and succeeded two or three times in bringing a deer home with him.
He had one day ventured much further away than usual. He had not succeeded in finding a stag, and the ladies had for more than a week subsisted entirely on fish. He therefore determined to continue the search, however long, until he found one. He had crossed several wooded hills, and was, he knew, leagues away from the point where he had left his party, when, suddenly emerging from a wood, he came upon a road just at the moment when a party some twenty strong of wild clansmen were traversing it. On a palfrey in their centre was a young lady whom they were apparently escorting. They were but twenty yards away when he emerged from the wood, and on seeing him they drew their claymores and rushed upon him. Perceiving that flight from these swift footed mountaineers would be impossible, Archie threw down his bow and arrows, and, drawing his sword, placed his back against a tree, and prepared to defend himself until the last.
Parrying the blows of the first two who arrived he stretched them dead upon the ground, and was then at once attacked by the whole of the party together. Two more of his assailants fell by his sword; but he must have been soon overpowered and slain, when the young lady, whose cries to her followers to cease had been unheeded in the din of the conflict, spurred her palfrey forward and broke into the ring gathered round Archie.
The clansmen drew back a pace, and Archie lowered his sword.
"Desist," she cried to the former in a tone of command, "or my uncle Alexander will make you rue the day when you disobeyed my orders. I will answer for this young knight. And now, sir," she said, turning to Archie, "do you surrender your sword to me, and yield yourself up a prisoner. Further resistance would be madness; you have done too much harm already. I promise you your life if you will make no further resistance."
"Then, lady," Archie replied, handing his sword to her, "I willingly yield myself your prisoner, and thank you for saving my life from the hands of your savage followers."
The young lady touched the hilt of his sword, and motioned him to replace it in its scabbard.
"You must accompany me," she said, "to the abode of my uncle Alexander MacDougall. I would," she continued, as, with Archie walking beside her palfrey, while the Highlanders, with sullen looks, kept close behind, muttering angrily to themselves at having been cheated by the young lady of their vengeance upon the man who had slain four of their number, "that I could set you at liberty, but my authority over my uncle's clansmen does not extend so far; and did I bid them let you go free they would assuredly disobey me. You are, as I can see by your attire, one of the Bruce's followers, for no other knight could be found wandering alone through these woods."
"Yes, lady," Archie said, "I am Sir Archibald Forbes, one of the few followers of the King of Scotland."
The lady gave a sudden start when Archie mentioned his name, and for some little time did not speak again.
"I would," she said at last in a low voice, "that you had been any other, seeing that Alexander MacDougall has a double cause of enmity against you -- firstly, as being a follower of Bruce, who slew his kinsman Comyn, and who has done but lately great harm to himself and his clansmen; secondly, as having dispossessed Allan Kerr, who is also his relative, of his lands and castle. My uncle is a man of violent passions, and" -- she hesitated.
"And he may not, you think," Archie went on, "respect your promise for my life. If that be so, lady -- and from what I have heard of Alexander MacDougall it is like enough -- I beg you to give me back my surrender, for I would rather die here, sword in hand, than be put to death in cold blood in the castle of Dunstaffnage."
"No," the lady said, "that cannot be. Think you I could see you butchered before mine eyes after having once surrendered yourself to me? No, sir. I beseech you act not so rashly -- that were certain death; and I trust that my uncle, hostile as he may be against you, will not inflict such dishonour upon me as to break the pledge I have given for your safety."
Archie thought from what he had heard of the MacDougall that his chance was a very slight one. Still, as the young ever cling to hope, and as he would assuredly be slain by the clansmen, he thought it better to take the chance, small as it was, and so continued his march by the side of his captor's palfrey.
After two hours' journey they neared the castle of Alexander of Lorne. Archie could not repress a thrill of apprehension as he looked at the grim fortress and thought of the character of its lord; but his bearing showed no fear, as, conversing with the young lady, he approached the entrance. The gate was thrown open, and Alexander of Lorne himself issued out with a number of retainers.
"Ah! Marjory!" he said, "I am glad to see your bonny face at Dunstaffnage. It is three months since you left us, and the time has gone slowly; the very dogs have been pining for your voice. But who have we here?" he exclaimed, as his eye fell upon Archie.
"It is a wandering knight, uncle," Marjory said lightly, "whom I captured in the forest on my way hither. He fought valiantly against Murdoch and your followers, but at last he surrendered to me on my giving him my pledge that his life should be safe, and that he should be treated honourably. Such a pledge I am sure, uncle," she spoke earnestly now, "you will respect."
Alexander MacDougall's brow was as black as night, and he spoke in Gaelic with his followers.
"What!" he said angrily to the girl; "he has killed four of my men, and is doubtless one of Bruce's party who slipped through my fingers the other day and killed so many of my kinsmen and vassals. You have taken too much upon yourself, Marjory. It is not by you that he has been made captive, but by my men, and you had no power to give such promise as you have made. Who is this young springall?"
"I am Sir Archibald Forbes," Archie said proudly -- "a name which may have reached you even here."
"Archibald Forbes!" exclaimed MacDougall furiously. "What! the enemy and despoiler of the Kerrs! Had you a hundred lives you should die. Didst know this, Marjory?" he said furiously to the girl. "Didst know who this young adventurer was when you asked his life of me?"
"I did, uncle," the girl said fearlessly. "I did not know his name when he surrendered to me, and afterwards, when he told me, what could I do? I had given my promise, and I renewed it; and I trust, dear uncle, that you will respect and not bring dishonour upon it."
"Dishonour!" MacDougall said savagely; "the girl has lost her senses. I tell you he should die if every woman in Scotland had given her promise for his life. Away with him!" he said to his retainers; "take him to the chamber at the top of the tower; I will give him till tomorrow to prepare for death, for by all the saints I swear he shall hang at daybreak. As to you, girl, go to your chamber, and let me not see your face again till this matter is concluded. Methinks a madness must have fallen upon you that you should thus venture to lift your voice for a Forbes."
The girl burst into tears as Archie was led away. His guards took him to the upper chamber in a turret, a little room of some seven feet in diameter, and there, having deprived him of his arms, they left him, barring and bolting the massive oaken door behind them.
Archie had no hope whatever that Alexander MacDougall would change his mind, and felt certain that the following dawn would be his last. Of escape there was no possibility; the door was solid and massive, the window a mere narrow loophole for archers, two or three inches wide; and even had he time to enlarge the opening he would be no nearer freedom, for the moat lay full eighty feet below.
"I would I had died sword in hand!" he said bitterly; "then it would have been over in a moment."
Then he thought of the girl to whom he had surrendered his sword.
"It was a sweet face and a bright one," he said; "a fairer and brighter I never saw. It is strange that I should meet her now only when I am about to die." Then he thought of the agony which his mother would feel at the news of his death and at the extinction of their race. Sadly he paced up and down his narrow cell till night fell. None took the trouble to bring him food -- considering, doubtless, that he might well fast till morning. When it became dark he lay down on the hard stone, and, with his arm under his head was soon asleep -- his last determination being that if possible he would snatch a sword or dagger from the hand of those who came to take him to execution, and so die fighting; or if that were impossible, he would try to burst from them and to end his life by a leap from the turret.
He was awakened by a slight noise at the door, and sprang to his feet instantly, believing that day was at hand and his hour had come. To his surprise a voice, speaking scarcely above a whisper, said:
"Hush! my son, make no noise; I am here as a friend." Then the door closed, and Archie's visitor produced a lighted lantern from the folds of his garments, and Archie saw that a priest stood before him.
"I thank you, father," he said gratefully; "you have doubtless come to shrive me, and I would gladly listen to your ministrations. I would fain intrust you, too, with a message to my mother if you will take it for me; and I would fain also that you told the Lady Marjory that she must not grieve for my death, or feel that she is in any way dishonoured by it, seeing that she strove to her utmost to keep her promise, and is in no way to blame that her uncle has overriden her."
"You can even give her your message yourself, sir knight," the priest said, "seeing that the wilful girl has herself accompanied me hither."
Thus saying, he stepped aside, and Archie perceived, standing behind the priest, a figure who, being in deep shadow, he had not hitherto seen. She came timidly forward, and Archie, bending on one knee, took the hand she held out and kissed it.
"Lady," he said, "you have heard my message; blame not yourself, I beseech you, for my death. Remember that after all you have lengthened my life and not shortened it, seeing that but for your interference I must have been slain as I stood, by your followers. It was kind and good of you thus to come to bid me farewell."
"But I have not come to bid you farewell. Tell him, good Father Anselm, our purpose here."
"`Tis a mad brain business," the priest said, shrugging his shoulders; "and, priest though I am, I shall not care to meet MacDougall in the morning. However, since this wilful girl wills it, what can I do? I have been her instructor since she was a child; and instead of being a docile and obedient pupil, she has been a tyrannical master to me; and I have been so accustomed to do her will in all things that I cannot say her nay now. I held out as long as I could; but what can a poor priest do against sobs and tears? So at last I have given in and consented to risk the MacDougall's anger, to bring smiles into her face again. I have tried in vain to persuade her that since it is the chief's doing, your death will bring no dishonour upon her. I have offered to absolve her from the promise, and if she has not faith in my power to do so, to write to the pope himself and ask for his absolution for any breach that there may be; but I might as well have spoken to the wind. When a young lady makes up her mind, stone walls are less difficult to move; so you see here we are. Wound round my waist are a hundred feet of stout rope, with knots tied three feet apart. We have only now to ascend the stairs to the platform above and fix the rope, and in an hour you will be far away among the woods."
Archie's heart bounded with joy with the hope of life and freedom; but he said quietly, "I thank you, dear lady, with all my heart for your goodness; but I could not accept life at the cost of bringing your uncle's anger upon you."
"You need not fear for that," the girl replied. "My uncle is passionate and headstrong -- unforgiving to his foes or those he deems so, but affectionate to those he loves. I have always been his pet; and though, doubtless, his anger will be hot just at first, it will pass away after a time. Let no scruple trouble you on that score; and I would rather put up with a hundred beatings than live with the knowledge that one of Scotland's bravest knights came to his end by a breach of my promise. Though my uncle and all my people side with the English, yet do not I; and I think the good father here, though from prudence he says but little, is a true Scotsman also. I have heard of your name from childhood as the companion and friend of Wallace, and as one of the champions of our country; and though by blood I ought to hate you, my feelings have been very different. But now stand talking no longer; the castle is sound asleep, but I tremble lest some mischance should mar our plans."
"That is good sense," Father Anselm said; "and remember, not a word must be spoken when we have once left this chamber. There is a sentry at the gate; and although the night is dark, and I deem not that he can see us, yet must we observe every precaution."
"Holy father," Archie said, "no words of mine can thank you for the part which you are playing tonight. Believe me, Archie Forbes will ever feel grateful for your kindness and aid; and should you ever quit Dunstaffnage you will be welcomed at Aberfilly Castle. As to you, lady, henceforth Archie Forbes is your knight and servant. You have given me my life, and henceforth I regard it as yours. Will you take this ring as my token? Should you ever send it to me, in whatever peril or difficulty you may be, I will come to your aid instantly, even should it reach me in a stricken battle. Think not that I speak the language of idle gallantry. Hitherto my thoughts have been only on Scotland, and no maiden has ever for an instant drawn them from her. Henceforth, though I fight for Scotland, yet will my country have a rival in my heart; and even while I charge into the ranks of the English, the fair image of Marjory MacDougall will be in my thoughts."
Father Anselm gave a slight start of surprise as Archie concluded, and would have spoken had not the girl touched him lightly. She took the pledge from Archie and said, "I will keep your ring, Sir Archibald Forbes; and should I ever have occasion for help I will not forget your promise. As to your other words, I doubt not that you mean them now; but it is unlikely, though I may dwell in your thoughts, that you will ever in the flesh see Marjory MacDougall, between whose house and yours there is, as you know, bitter enmity."
"There! there!" Father Anselm said impatiently; "enough, and more than enough talk. Go to the door, Sir Archibald, and prepare to open it directly I have blown out the light. The way up the stairs lies on your right hand as you go out."
Not another word was spoken. Noiselessly the little party made their way to the roof; there one end of the rope was quickly knotted round the battlement. Archie grasped the good priest's hand, and kissed that of the girl; and then, swinging himself off the battlement, disappeared at once in the darkness. Not a sound was heard for some time, then the listening pair above heard a faint splash in the water. The priest laid his hands on the rope and found that it swung slack in the air; he hauled it up and twisted it again round his waist. As he passed the door of the cell he pushed it to and replaced the bars and bolts, and then with his charge regained the portion of the castle inhabited by the family.
A few vigorous strokes took Archie across the moat, and an hour later he was deep in the heart of the forest. Before morning broke he was far beyond the risk of pursuit; and, taking the bearings of the surrounding hills, he found himself, after some walking, at the spot where he had left the royal party. As he had expected, it was deserted; he, however, set out on the traces of the party, and that night overtook them at their next encampment.
With the reticence natural to young lovers Archie felt a disinclination to speak of what had happened, or of the services which Marjory MacDougall had rendered him. As it was naturally supposed that he had lost his way in the woods on the previous day, and had not reached the encampment in the morning, until after they had started, few questions were asked, and indeed the thoughts of the whole party were occupied with the approaching separation which the night before they had agreed was absolutely necessary. The ladies were worn out with their fatigues and hardships, and the Earl of Athole, and some of the other elder men, were also unable longer to support it. Winter was close at hand, and the hardships would increase ten fold in severity. Therefore it was concluded that the time had come when they must separate, and that the queen and her companions, accompanied by those who could still be mounted, should seek shelter in Bruce's strong castle of Kildrummy. The Earl of Athole and the king's brother Nigel were in charge of the party.
Bruce with his remaining companions determined to proceed into Kintyre, the country of Sir Neil Campbell, and thence to cross for a time to the north of Ireland. Sir Neil accordingly started to obtain the necessary vessels, and the king and his company followed slowly. To reach the Firth of Clyde it was necessary to cross Loch Lomond. This was a difficult undertaking; but after great search Sir James Douglas discovered a small boat sunk beneath the surface of the lake. On being pulled out it was found to be old and leaky, and would hold at best but three. With strips torn from their garments they stopped the leaks as best they could, and then started across the lake. There were two hundred to cross, and the passage occupied a night and a day; those who could not swim being taken over in the boat, while the swimmers kept alongside and when fatigued rested their hands on her gunwales. They were now in the Lennox country, and while Bruce and his friends were hunting, they were delighted to come across the Earl of Lennox and some of his companions, who had found refuge there after the battle of Methven. Although himself an exile and a fugitive the earl was in his own country, and was therefore able to entertain the king and his companions hospitably, and the rest and feeling of security were welcome indeed after the past labours and dangers.
After a time Sir Neil Campbell arrived with the vessels, and, accompanied by the Earl of Lennox, Bruce and his companions embarked at a point near Cardross. They sailed down the Clyde and round the south end of Arran, until, after many adventures and dangers, they reached the Castle of Dunaverty, on the south point of the Mull of Kintyre, belonging to Angus, chief of Islay. Here they waited for some time, but not feeling secure even in this secluded spot from the vengeance of their English and Scottish foes, they again set sail and landed at the Isle of Rathlin, almost midway between Ireland and Scotland. Hitherto Robert Bruce had received but little of that support which was so freely given to Wallace by the Scotch people at large; nor is this a matter for surprise. Baliol and Comyn had in turn betrayed the country to the English, and Bruce had hitherto been regarded as even more strongly devoted to the English cause than they had been. Thus the people viewed his attempt rather as an effort to win a throne for himself than as one to free Scotland from English domination. They had naturally no confidence in the nobles who had so often betrayed them, and Bruce especially had, three or four times already, after taking up arms, made his peace with England and fought against the Scots. Therefore, at first the people looked on at the conflict with comparative indifference. They were ready enough to strike for freedom, as they had proved when they had rallied round Wallace, but it was necessary before they did so that they should possess confidence in their leaders. Such confidence they had certainly no cause whatever to feel in Bruce. The time was yet to come when they should recognize in him a leader as bold, as persevering, and as determined as Wallace himself.
The people of Rathlin were rude and ignorant, but simple and hospitable. The island contained nothing to attract either adventurers or traders, and it was seldom, therefore, that ships touched there, consequently there was little fear that the news of the sojourn of the Scotch king and his companions would reach the mainland, and indeed the English remained in profound ignorance as to what had become of the fugitives, and deemed them to be still in hiding somewhere among the western hills.
Edward had in council issued a proclamation commanding "all the people of the country to pursue and search for all who had been in arms and had not surrendered, also all who had been guilty of other crimes, and to deliver them up dead or alive, and that whosoever were negligent in the discharge of his duty should forfeit their castles and be imprisoned."
Pembroke, the guardian, was to punish at his discretion all who harboured offenders. Those who abetted the slayers of Comyn, or who knowingly harboured them or their accomplices, were to be "drawn and hanged," while all who surrendered were to be imprisoned during the king's pleasure. The edict was carried out to the letter, and the English soldiery, with the aid of the Scotch of their party, scoured the whole country, putting to the sword all who were found in arms or under circumstances of suspicion.
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