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Chapter XV. A Mission to Ireland

Father Austin was as good as his word, and it was long indeed since Archie had sat down to such a meal as that which was spread for him. Hungry as he was, however, he could scarce keep his eyes open to its conclusion, so great was the fatigue of mind and body; and on retiring to the chamber which the monks had prepared for him, he threw himself on a couch and instantly fell asleep. In the morning the gale still blew violently, but with somewhat less fury than on the preceding evening. He joined the monks at their morning meal in the refectory, and after their repast they gathered round him to listen to his news of what was doing in Scotland; for although at ordinary times pilgrims came not unfrequently to visit the holy isle of Colonsay, in the present stormy times men stirred but little from home, and it was seldom that the monks obtained news of what was passing on the mainland. Presently a servitor brought word that the prior would see Archie.

"It was ill talking last night," the prior said, "with a man hungry and worn out; but I gathered from what you said that you are not only a follower of Bruce, but that you were with him at that fatal day at Dumfries when he drew his dagger upon Comyn in the sanctuary."

"I was there, holy father," Archie replied, "and can testify that the occurrence was wholly unpremeditated; but Bruce had received sufficient provocation from the Comyn to afford him fair reason for slaying him wheresoever they might meet. But none can regret more than he does that that place of meeting was in a sanctuary. The Comyn and Bruce had made an agreement together whereby the former relinquished his own claims to the throne of Scotland on condition that Bruce, on attaining the throne, would hand over to him all his lordships in Carrick and Annandale."

"It were a bad bargain," the prior said, "seeing that Comyn would then be more powerful than his king."

"So I ventured to tell the Bruce," Archie replied.

"Thou?" the prior said; "you are young, sir, to be in a position to offer counsel to Robert Bruce."

"I am young, holy prior," Archie said modestly; "but the king is good enough to overlook my youth in consideration of my fidelity to the cause of Scotland. My name is Archibald Forbes."

"Sir Archibald Forbes!" the prior repeated, rising; "and are you really that loyal and faithful Scottish knight who fought ever by the side of Wallace, and have almost alone refused ever to bow the knee to the English? Even to this lonely isle tales have come of your valour, how you fought side by side with Wallace, and were, with Sir John Grahame, his most trusty friend and confidant. Many of the highest and noblest of Scotland have for centuries made their way to the shrine of Colonsay, but none more worthy to be our guest. Often have I longed to see so brave a champion of our country, little thinking that you would one day come a storm driven guest. Truly am I glad to see you, and I say it even though you may have shared in the deed at Dumfries, for which I would fain hope from your words there is fairer excuse to be made than I had hitherto deemed. I have thought that the Bishops of St. Andrews and Glasgow were wrong in giving their countenance to a man whom the holy father had condemned -- a man whose prior history gives no ground for faith in his patriotism, who has taken up arms, now for, now against, the English, but has ever been ready to make terms with the oppressor, and to parade as his courtier at Westminster. In such a man I can have no faith, and deem that, while he pretends to fight for Scotland, he is in truth but warring for his own aggrandizement. But since you, the follower and friend of the disinterested and intrepid champion of Scotland, speak for the Bruce, it maybe that my judgement has been too severe upon him."

Archie now related the incident of his journey to London to urge Bruce to break with Edward and to head the national movement. He told how, even before the discovery of his agreement with Comyn, brought about by the treachery of the latter, Bruce had determined definitely to throw in his cause with that of Scotland; how upon that discovery he had fled north, and, happening to meet Comyn at Dumfries, within the limits of the sanctuary, had, in his indignation and ire at his treachery, drawn and slain him. Then he told the tale of what had taken place after the rout of Methven, how bravely Bruce had borne himself, and had ever striven to keep up the hearts of his companions; how cheerfully he had supported the hardships, and how valiantly he had borne himself both at Methven and when attacked by the MacDougalls of Lorne.

"Whatever his past may have been," Archie concluded, "I hold that now the Bruce is as earnest in the cause of Scotland as was even my dear leader Wallace. In strength and in courage he rivals that valiant knight, for though I hold that Wallace was far more than a match for any man of his time, yet Bruce is a worthy second to him, for assuredly no one in Scotland could cross swords with him on equal chances. That he will succeed in his enterprise it were rash to say, for mighty indeed are the odds against him; but if courage, perseverance, and endurance can wrest Scotland from the hands of the English, Robert Bruce will, if he lives, accomplish the task."

"Right glad am I," the prior replied, "to hear what you have told me. Hitherto, owing to my memory of his past and my horror at his crime -- for though from what you tell me there was much to excuse it, still it was a grievous crime -- I have had but little interest in the struggle, but henceforth this will be changed. You may tell the king that from this day, until death or victory crown his efforts, prayers will be said to heaven night and day at Colonsay for his success."

It was four days before the storm was over and the sea sufficiently calmed to admit of Archie's departure. During that time he remained as the honoured guest of the priory, and the good monks vied with the prior in their attentions to the young knight, the tales of whose doings, as one of Scotland's foremost champions, had so often reached their lonely island. At the end of that time, the sea being now calm and smooth, with a light wind from the north, Archie bade adieu to his hosts and sailed from Colonsay.

Light as the wind was, it sufficed to fill the sail; and as the boat glided over the scarce rippled water Archie could not but contrast the quiet sleepy motion with the wild speed at which the boat had torn through the water on her northern way. It was not until the following morning that Rathlin again came in sight.

As the boat was seen approaching, and was declared by the islanders to be that which they had regarded as lost in the storm a week previously, the king, Douglas, and the rest of his followers made their way down to the shore; and loud was the shout of welcome which arose when Archie stood up and waved his hand.

"Verily, Archie Forbes," the king said as he warmly embraced the young knight, "I shall begin to think that the fairies presided at your birth and gave you some charm to preserve your life alike against the wrath of men and of the elements. Never assuredly did anyone pass through so many dangers unscathed as you have done."

"I hope to pass through as many more, sire, in your service," Archie said smiling.

"I hope so, indeed," Bruce replied; "for it were an evil day for me and for Scotland that saw you fall; but henceforth I will fret no more concerning you. You alone of Wallace's early companions have survived. You got free from Dunstaffnage by some miracle which you have never fully explained to me, and now it would seem that even the sea refuses to swallow you."

"I trust," Archie said more gravely, "that the old saying is not true in my case, and that hanging is not to be my fate. Assuredly it will be if I ever fall into the hands of Edward, and I shall think it a cruel fate indeed if fortune, which has spared me so often in battle, leads me to that cruel end at last."

"I trust not indeed, Sir Archie," the king said, "though hanging now has ceased to be a dishonourable death when so many of Scotland's best and bravest have suffered it at the English hands. However, I cannot but think that your fairy godmother must have reserved for you the fate of the heroes of most of the stories of my old nurse, which always wound up with `and so he married, and lived happily ever after.' And now, Archie, tell me all that has befallen you, where you have been, and how you fared, and by what miraculous chance you escaped the tempest. All our eyes were fixed on the boat when you laboured to reach the shore, and had you heard the groans we uttered when we saw you give up the effort as hopeless and fly away to sea before the wind you would have known how truly all your comrades love you. We gave you up as assuredly lost, for the islanders here agreed that you had no chance of weathering the gale, and that the boat would, ere many hours, be dashed to pieces either on Islay or Jura, should it even reach so far; but the most thought that you would founder long ere you came in sight of the land."

Accompanying the king with his principal companions to the hut which he occupied, Archie related the incidents of the voyage and of their final refuge at Colonsay.

"It was a wonderful escape," the king said when be finished, "and the holy Virgin and the saints must assuredly have had you in their especial care. You have cost us well nigh a fortune, for not one of us but vowed offerings for your safety, which were, perchance, the more liberal, since we deemed the chances of paying them so small. However, they shall be redeemed, for assuredly they have been well earned, and for my share I am bound, when I come to my own, to give a piece of land of the value of one hundred marks a year to the good monks of St. Killian's to be spent in masses for the souls of those drowned at sea."

Some days later the king said to Archie, "I have a mission for you; `tis one of danger, but I know that that is no drawback in your eyes."

"I am ready," Archie said modestly, "to carry out to the best of my power any errand with which your majesty may intrust me."

"I have been thinking, Sir Archie, that I might well make some sort of alliance with the Irish chieftains. Many of these are, like most of our Scotch nobles, on terms of friendship with England; still there are others who hold aloof from the conquerors. It would be well to open negotiations with these, so that they by rising might distract Edward's attention from Scotland, while we, by our efforts, would hinder the English from sending all their force thither, and we might thus mutually be of aid to each other. At present I am, certes, in no position to promise aid in men or money; but I will bind myself by an oath that if my affairs in Scotland prosper I will from my treasury furnish money to aid them in carrying on the struggle, and that if I clear Scotland of her oppressors I will either go myself or send one of my brothers with a strong force to aid the Irish to follow our example. The mission is, as you will see, Sir Archie, a dangerous one; for should any of the English, or their Irish allies, lay hands on you, your doom would be sealed. Still you may do me and Scotland great service should you succeed in your mission. Even minor risings would be of much utility, seeing that they would at any rate prevent Edward from bringing over troops from Ireland to assist in our conquest. I have thought the matter over deeply, and conclude that, young as you are, I can intrust it to you with confidence, and that you are indeed the best fitted among those with me to undertake it. Douglas is but a boy; my brother Edward is too hot and rash; Boyd is impatient and headstrong, trusty and devoted to me though he is; but I am sure that in you there is no lack either of prudence or courage. Hence, Sir Archie, if you will undertake it I will intrust it to you."

"I will willingly undertake it, sire, since you think me fitting for it, and deem it a high honour indeed that you have chosen me. When will you that I start?"

"It were best to lose no time," the king replied, "and if you have no reason for delay I would that you should embark tonight, so that before daybreak you may have gained the Irish shore. They tell me that there are many desperate men in refuge among the caves on the coast, and among these you might choose a few who might be useful to you in your project; but it is not in this part that a rising can be effected, for the country inland is comparatively flat and wholly in the hands of the English. It is on the west coast that the resistance to the English was continued to the last, and here from time to time it blazes out again. In those parts, as they tell me, not only are there wild mountains and fastnesses such as we have in Scotland, but there are great morasses and swamps, extending over wide tracts, where heavy armed soldiers cannot penetrate, and where many people still maintain a sort of wild independence, defying all the efforts of the English to subdue them. The people are wild and savage, and ever ready to rise against the English. Here, then, is the country where you are most likely to find chiefs who may enter into our plans, and agree to second our efforts for independence. Here are some rings and gold chains, which are all that remain to me of my possessions. Money I have none; but with these you may succeed in winning the hearts of some of these savage chieftains. Take, too, my royal signet, which will be a guarantee that you have power to treat in my name. I need not tell you to be brave, Sir Archie; but be prudent -- remember that your life is of the utmost value to me. I want you not to fight, but simply to act as my envoy. If you succeed in raising a great fire in the west of Ireland, remain there and act as councillor to the chiefs, remembering that you are just as much fighting for Scotland there as if you were drawing sword against her foes at home. If you find that the English arm is too strong, and the people too cowed and disheartened to rise against it, then make your way back here by the end of three months, by which time I hope to sail hence and to raise my standard in Scotland again."

On leaving the king Archie at once conferred with Duncan the fisherman, who willingly agreed that night to set him ashore in Ireland.

"I will land you," he said, "at a place where you need not fear that any English will meet you. It is true that they have a castle but three miles away perched on a rock on the coast. It is called Dunluce, and commands a wide seaward view, and for this reason it were well that our boat were far out at sea again before morning dawned, so that if they mark us they will not suppose that we have touched on the coast; else they might send a party to search if any have landed -- not even then that you need fear discovery, for the coast abounds in caves and hiding places. My sons have often landed there, for we do a certain trade in the summer from the island in fish and other matters with the natives there. If it pleases you my son Ronald, who is hardy and intelligent, shall land with you and accompany you as your retainer while you remain in Ireland. The people there speak a language quite different to that which you use in the lowlands of Scotland and in England, but the language we speak among ourselves closely resembles it, and we can be easily understood by the people of the mainland. You would be lost did you go among the native Irish without an interpreter."

Archie thankfully accepted the offer, and that night, after bidding adieu to the friends and his comrades, started in Duncan's boat.

"`Tis a strange place where I am going to land you," the fisherman said; "such a place as nowhere else have my eyes beheld, though they say that at the Isle of Staffa, far north of Colonsay, a similar sight is to be seen. The rocks, instead of being rugged or square, rise in close columns like the trunks of trees, or like the columns in the church of the priory of Colonsay. Truly they seem as if wrought by the hands of men, or rather of giants, seeing that no men could carry out so vast a work. The natives have legends that they are the work of giants of old times. How this may be I know not, though why giants should have engaged in so useless a work passes my understanding. However, there are the pillars, whosoever placed them there. Some of them are down by the level of the sea. Here their heads seem to be cut off so as to form a landing place, to which the natives give the name of the Giant's Causeway. Others in low rows stand on the face of the cliff itself, though how any could have stood there to work them, seeing that no human foot can reach the base, is more than I can say. `Tis a strange and wonderful sight, as you will say when the morning light suffers you to see it."

It was fortunate that Duncan knew the coast so well, and was able by the light of the stars to find a landing place, for quiet as the sea appeared a swell rose as they neared the shore, and the waves beat heavily on the wild and rocky coast. Duncan, however, steered his boat to the very foot of the Causeway, and then, watching his opportunity, Archie sprang ashore followed by Ronald. A few words of adieu were spoken, and then the boat rowed out to sea again, while Archie and Ronald turned away from the landing place.

"It were best," the young fisherman said, "to find a seat among the rocks, and there to await the dawn, when I can guide you to some caves hard by; but in the darkness we might well fall and break a limb did we try and make our way across the coast.''

A niche was soon found, and Archie and his companion sat down for a while. Archie, however, soon discovered that the sides and back of his seat were formed of the strange columns of which Duncan had spoken, and that he was sitting upon the tops of others which had broken off. Eagerly he passed his hands over the surface of these strange pillars, and questioned his companion as to what he knew about them; but Ronald could tell him no more than his father had done, and Archie was forced to await the dawn to examine more closely the strange columns. Daylight only added to his wonder. On all sides of him stretched the columns, packed in a dense mass together, while range above range they stood on the face of the great cliffs above him. The more he examined them the more his wonder grew.

"They can neither be the work of men nor giants," he said, "but must have been called up by the fantastic freak of some powerful enchanter. Hitherto I have not believed the tales of these mysterious beings of old times; but after seeing these wonderful pillars I can no longer doubt, for assuredly no mortal hand could have done this work."

Ronald now urged that they had better be moving, as it was possible, although unlikely enough, that one passing along the top of the cliffs might get sight of them. They accordingly moved along the shore, and in a quarter of a mile reached the mouth of a great cave. The bottom was covered with rocks, which had fallen from the roof, thickly clustered over with wet seaweed, which, indeed, hung from the sides far up, showing that at high tide the sea penetrated far into the cave.

"The ground rises beyond," Ronald said, "and you will find recesses there which the tide never reaches." They moved slowly at first until their eyes became accustomed to the darkness; then they kept on, the ground getting more even as they ascended, until they stood on a dry and level floor.

"Now I will strike a light," Ronald said, "and light the torch which I brought with me. We are sure to find plenty of driftwood cast up at the highest point the tide reaches. Then we can make a fire, and while you remain here I will go out and find some of the natives, and engage a guide to take us forward tonight."

Taking out his flint and steel, Ronald proceeded to strike a light, and after several efforts succeeded in doing so and in igniting some dried moss which he had brought with him, carefully shielded from damp in the folds of his garment. As a light flame rose he applied his torch to it; but as he did so, came an exclamation of astonishment, for gathered in a circle round them were a dozen wild figures. All were armed and stood in readiness to strike down the intruders into their hiding place. They were barefooted, and had doubtless been asleep in the cave until, when awakened by the approaching footsteps and voices, they had silently arisen and prepared to fall upon the intruders.

"We are friends," Ronald said in the native language when he recovered from his start of surprise. "I am Ronald, a fisherman from Rathlin, and was over here in the summer exchanging fish for sheep."

"I recollect you," one of the men said; "but what do you here so strangely and secretly? Are the English hunting you too from your island as they have done us?"

"They have not come to Rathlin yet," Ronald said.

"Doubtless they would do so, but `tis too poor to offer any temptation for their greed. But they are our enemies as they are yours. I am here to guide this Scottish knight, who is staying at Rathlin, a fugitive from their vengeance like yourself, and who is charged with a mission from the King of Scotland to your chiefs, whom he would fain induce to join in a rising against the power of the English."

"He is welcome," the man who appeared to be the leader of the party replied, "and may he succeed in his object; but," he continued bitterly, "I fear that the chance is a small one. The Norman foot is on our necks, and most of those who should be our leaders have basely accepted the position of vassals to the English king. Still there are brave hearts yet in Ireland who would gladly rise did they see even a faint chance of success. Hundreds are there who, like us, prefer to live the lives of hunted dogs in caves, in mountain fastnesses, or in the bogs, rather than yield to the English yoke. Tell me your plans and whither you would go; and I will give you guides who know every foot of the country, and who can lead you to the western hills, where, though no open resistance is made, the English have scarce set foot. There we generally find refuge; and `tis only at times, when the longing to see the homes of our childhood becomes too strong for us, that I and those you see -- all of whom were born and reared between this and Coleraine -- come hither for a time, when at night we can issue out and prowl round the ruins of the homes of our fathers."

While this conversation had been going on, the others, seeing that the visit was a friendly one, had set to work, and bringing up driftwood from below, piled it round the little blaze which Ronald had commenced, and soon had a great fire lighted. They then produced the carcass of a sheep which they had the evening before carried off. Ronald had brought with him a large pile of oaten cakes, and a meal was speedily prepared.

Archie could not but look with surprise at the wild figures around him, lit up by the dancing glare of the fire. Their hair lay in tangled masses on their necks; their attire was of the most primitive description, consisting but of one garment secured round the waist by a strap of untanned leather; their feet and legs were bare. Their hair was almost black; their eyes small and glittering, with heavy overhanging brows; and they differed altogether in appearance even from the wildest and poorest of the Scottish peasantry. In their belts all bore long knives of rough manufacture, and most of them carried slings hanging from the belt, in readiness for instant use. In spite of the wildness of their demeanour they seemed kindly and hospitable; and many were the questions which they asked Ronald concerning the King of Scotland and his knights who were in refuge at Rathlin.

When the meal was over all stretched themselves on the sand like so many animals, and without further preparation went off to sleep. Archie, knowing that nothing could be done until nightfall, followed their example. The fire had by this time burned low, and soon perfect stillness reigned in the great cavern, save that far away at its mouth the low thunder of the waves upon the rocks came up in a confused roar.

G. A. Henty