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Chapter III. Sir William Wallace

Archie's coming had been expected by Sir Robert Gordon, and he was warmly welcomed. He had once or twice a year paid short visits to the house, but his mother could not bring herself to part with him for more than a few days at a time; and so long as he needed only such rudiments of learning as were deemed useful at the time, she herself was fully able to teach them; but now that the time had come when it was needful that he should be perfected in the exercises of arms, she felt it necessary to relinquish him.

Sir Robert Gordon had no children of his own, and regarded his nephew as his heir, and had readily undertaken to provide him with the best instruction which could be obtained in Lanark. There was resident in the town a man who had served for many years in the army of the King of France, and had been master of arms in his regiment. His skill with his sword was considered marvellous by his countrymen at Lanark, for the scientific use of weapons was as yet but little known in Scotland, and he had also in several trials of skill easily worsted the best swordsmen in the English garrison.

Sir Robert Gordon at once engaged this man as instructor to Archie. As his residence was three miles from the town, and the lad urged that two or three hours a day of practice would by no means satisfy him, a room was provided, and his instructor took up his abode in the castle. Here, from early morning until night, Archie practised, with only such intervals for rest as were demanded by his master himself. The latter, pleased with so eager a pupil, astonished at first at the skill and strength which he already possessed, and seeing in him one who would do more than justice to all pains that he could bestow upon him, grudged no labour in bringing him forward and in teaching him all he knew.

"He is already an excellent swordsman," he said at the end of the first week's work to Sir Robert Gordon; "he is well nigh as strong as a man, with all the quickness and activity of a boy. In straightforward fighting he needs but little teaching. Of the finer strokes he as yet knows nothing; but such a pupil will learn as much in a week as the ordinary slow blooded learner will acquire in a year. In three months I warrant I will teach him all I know, and will engage that he shall be a match for any Englishman north of the Tweed, save in the matter of downright strength; that he will get in time, for he promises to grow out into a tall and stalwart man, and it will need a goodly champion to hold his own against him when he comes to his full growth."

In the intervals of pike and sword play Sir Robert Gordon himself instructed him in equitation; but the lad did not take to this so kindly as he did to his other exercises, saying that he hoped he should always have to fight on foot. Still, as his uncle pointed out that assuredly this would not be the case, since in battle knights and squires always fought on horseback, he strove hard to acquire a firm and steady seat. Of an evening Archie sat with his uncle and aunt, the latter reading, the former relating stories of Scotch history and of the goings and genealogies of great families. Sometimes there were friends staying in the castle; for Sir Robert Gordon, although by no means a wealthy knight, was greatly liked, and, being of an hospitable nature, was glad to have guests in the house.

Their nearest neighbour was Mistress Marion Bradfute of Lamington, near Ellerslie. She was a young lady of great beauty. Her father had been for some time dead, and she had but lately lost her mother, who had been a great friend of Lady Gordon. With her lived as companion and guardian an aunt, the sister of her mother.

Mistress Bradfute, besides her estate of Lamington, possessed a house in Lanark; and she was frequently at Sir Robert's castle, he having been named one of her guardians under her father's will. Often in the evening the conversation turned upon the situation of Scotland, the cruelty and oppression of the English, and the chances of Scotland some day ridding herself of the domination.

Sir Robert ever spoke guardedly, for he was one who loved not strife, and the enthusiasm of Archie caused him much anxiety; he often, therefore, pointed out to him the madness of efforts of isolated parties like those of Wallace, which, he maintained, advanced in no way the freedom of the country, while they enraged the English and caused them to redouble the harshness and oppression of their rule. Wallace's name was frequently mentioned, and Archie always spoke with enthusiasm of his hero; and he could see that, although Mistress Bradfute said but little, she fully shared his views. It was but natural that Wallace's name should come so often forward, for his deeds, his hairbreadth escapes, his marvellous personal strength and courage, were the theme of talk in every Scotch home; but at Lanark at present it was specially prominent, for with his band he had taken up his abode in a wild and broken country known as Cart Lane Craigs, and more than once he had entered Lanark and had had frays with the English soldiers there.

It was near a year since the defeat of Dunbar; and although the feats of Wallace in storming small fortalices and cutting off English convoys had excited at once hope amongst the Scotch and anger in the English, the hold of the latter on the conquered country appeared more settled than ever. Wallace's adherents had indeed gained in strength; but they were still regarded as a mere band of outlaws who might be troublesome, but were in no degree formidable.

Every great town and hold throughout Scotland was garrisoned by English in force deemed amply sufficient to repress any trouble which might arise, while behind them was the whole power of England ready to march north in case it should be needed. It seemed, indeed, that Scotland was completely and for ever subjugated.

One afternoon, when Archie had escorted Mistress Bradfute to Lamington, she said to him as he bade her farewell:

"I think you can keep a secret, Master Forbes."

"I trust so," Archie replied.

"I know how much you admire and reverence Sir William Wallace. If you will come hither this evening, at eight o'clock, you shall see him."

Archie uttered an exclamation of delight and surprise.

"Mind, Archie, I am telling you a secret which is known only to Sir William himself and a few of his chosen followers; but I have obtained his permission to divulge it to you, assuring him that you can be fully trusted."

"I would lay down my life for him," the lad said.

"I think you would, Archie; and so would I, for Sir William Wallace is my husband!"

Archie gave a gasp of astonishment and surprise.

"Yes," she repeated, "he is my husband. And now ride back to your uncle's. I left the piece of embroidery upon which I was working on your aunt's table. It will be a good excuse for you to ride over with it this evening." So saying, she sprang lightly from the pillion on which she had been riding behind Archie. The lad rode back in wild excitement at the thought that before night he was to see his hero whose deeds had, for the last three years, excited his admiration and wonder.

At eight o'clock exactly he drew rein again at Lamington. He was at once admitted, and was conducted to a room where the mistress of the house was sitting, and where beside her stood a very tall and powerfully built young man, with a singularly handsome face and a courteous and gentle manner which seemed altogether out of character with the desperate adventures in which he was constantly engaged.

In Scotland the laws of chivalry, as they were strictly observed in the courts of England and France, did not prevail. Sir William Wallace had not received the order of knighthood; but in Scotch families the prefix of Sir descended from father to eldest son, as it does in the present day with the title of Baronet. Thus William Wallace, when his father and elder brother were killed, succeeded to the title. Knighthoods, or, as we should call them, baronetcies, were bestowed in Scotland, as in England, for bravery in the field and distinguished services. The English, with their stricter laws of chivalry, did not recognize these hereditary titles; and Sir William Wallace and many of his adherents who bear the prefix of Sir in all Scotch histories, are spoken of without that title in contemporary English documents. Archie himself had inherited the title from his father; and the prefix was, indeed, applied to the heads of almost all families of gentle blood in Scotland.

"This, Sir William," Marion said, "is Sir Archibald Forbes, of whom I have often spoken to you as one of your most fervent admirers. He is a true Scotsman, and he yearns for the time when he may draw his sword in the cause of his country."

"He is over young yet," Sir William said smiling; "but time will cure that defect. It is upon the young blood of Scotland that our hopes rest. The elders are for the most part but half Scotchmen, and do not feel shame for their country lying at the feet of England; but from their sons I hope for better things. The example of my dear friend, Sir John Grahame, is being followed; and I trust that many young men of good family will soon join them."

"I would that the time had come when I too could do so, sir," Archie said warmly. "I hope that it will not be long before you may think me capable of being admitted to the honour of fighting beside you. Do you not remember that you yourself were but eighteen when you slew young Selbye?"

"I am a bad example to be followed," Sir William replied with a smile; "besides, nature made an exception in my case and brought me to my full strength and stature full four years before the time. Mistress Marion tells me, however, that you too are strong beyond your years."

"I have practised unceasingly, sir, with my weapons for the last two years; and deem me not boastful when I say that my instructor, Duncan Macleod of Lanark, who is a famous swordsman, says that I could hold my own and more against any English soldier in the garrison."

"I know Duncan by report," Sir William replied, "and that he is a famous swordsman, having learned the art in France, where they are more skilled by far than we are in Scotland. As for myself, I must own that it is my strength rather than my skill which gives me an advantage in a conflict; for I put my trust in a downright blow, and find that the skill of an antagonist matters but little, seeing that my blow will always cleave through sword as well as helm. Nevertheless I do not decry skill, seeing that between two who are in any ways equally matched in strength and courage the most skilful swordsman must assuredly conquer. Well, since that be the report of you by Master Duncan, I should think you might even take to arms at the age that I did myself and when that time comes, should your intentions hold the same, and the English not have made an end of me, I shall be right glad to have you by my side. Should you, in any of your visits to Lanark -- whither, Marion tells me, you ride frequently with Sir Robert Gordon -- hear ought of intended movements of English troops, or gather any news which it may concern me to know, I pray you to ride hither at once. Marion has always messengers whom she may despatch to me, seeing that I need great care in visiting her here, lest I might be surprised by the English, who are ever upon the lookout for me. And now farewell! Remember that you have always a friend in William Wallace."

Winter was now at hand, and a week or two later Mistress Marion moved into her house in Lanark, where Archie, when he rode in, often visited her. In one of her conversations she told him that she had been married to Sir William nigh upon two years, and that a daughter had been born to her who was at present kept by an old nurse of her own in a cottage hard by Lamington. "I tell you this, Archie," she said, "for there is no saying at what time calamity may fall upon us. Sir William is so daring and careless that I live in constant dread of his death or capture; and did it become known that I am his wife, doubtless my estate would be forfeited and myself taken prisoner; and in that case it were well that my little daughter should find friends."

"I wonder that you do not stay at Lamington," Archie said; "for Sir William's visits to you here may well be discovered, and both he and you be put in peril."

"I would gladly do so," she said; "but as you may have heard, Young Hazelrig, the governor's son, persecutes me with his attentions; he is moved thereto methinks rather by a desire for my possessions than any love for myself. He frequently rode over to Lamington to see me, and as there are necessarily many there who suspect, if they do not know, my secret, my husband would be more likely to be surprised in a lonely house there, than he would be in the city, where he can always leave or enter our abode by the passage into a back street unseen by any."

A few days later Archie had ridden into Lanark bearing a message from his uncle; he had put up his horse, and was walking along the principal street when he heard a tumult and the clashing of swords; he naturally hurried up to see what was the cause of the fray, and he saw Sir William Wallace and a young companion defending themselves with difficulty against a number of English soldiers led by young Hazelrig, the son of the governor, and Sir Robert Thorne, one of his officers. Archie stood for a few moments irresolute; but as the number of the assailants increased, as fresh soldiers hearing the sound of the fray came running down the street, and Sir William and his friend, although they had slain several, were greatly overmatched, he hesitated no longer, but, drawing his sword, rushed through the soldiers, and placing himself by the side of Wallace, joined in the fray. Wallace recognized him with a nod.

"It is sooner than I bargained for, Sir Archie; but you are very welcome. Ah! that was well smitten, and Duncan did not overpraise your skill," he exclaimed, as Archie cut down one soldier, and wounded another who pressed upon him.

"They are gathering in force, Sir William," the knight's companion said, "and if we do not cut our way through them we shall assuredly be taken." Keeping near the wall they retreated down the street, Archie and Sir John Grahame, for it was he, clearing the way, and Wallace defending the rear. So terrific were the blows he dealt that the English soldiers shrank back from attacking him.

At this moment two horsemen rode up and reined in their horses to witness the fray. They were father and son, and the instant the eyes of the elder fell upon Archie he exclaimed to his son:

"This is good fortune. That is young Forbes fighting by the side of the outlaw Wallace. I will finish our dispute at once."

So saying he drew his sword, and urged his horse through the soldiers towards Archie; the latter equally recognized the enemy of his family. Sir John aimed a sweeping blow at him. The lad parried it, and, leaping back, struck at the horse's leg. The animal fell instantly, and as he did so Archie struck full on the helm of Sir John Kerr, stretching him on the ground beside his horse.

By this time the little party had retreated down the street until they were passing the house of Marion Bradfute. The door opened, and Marion herself cried to them to enter. So hemmed in were they, indeed, that further retreat was now impossible, and there being no time for hesitation, Wallace and his companions sprang in before their assailants could hinder them, and shut the door behind them.

"Marion," Wallace exclaimed, "why did you do this? It mattered not were I killed or taken; but now you have brought danger upon yourself."

"But it mattered much to me. What would life be worth were you killed? Think not of danger to me. Angry as they may be, they will hardly touch a woman. But waste no time in talking, for the door will soon yield to their blows. Fly by the back entrance, while there is time."

So saying, she hurried them to the back of the house, and without allowing them to pause for another word almost pushed them out, and closed the door behind them. The lane was deserted; but the shouts and clamour of the English soldiers beyond the houses rose loud in the air. "Quick, Sir William," Sir John Grahame said, "or we shall be cut off! They will bethink them of the back way, and send soldiers down to intercept us."

Such, indeed, was the case, for as they ran they heard shouts behind, and saw some English soldiers entering the other end of the lane. In front, however, all was clear, and running on they turned into another street, and then down to the gate. The guard, hearing the tumult, had turned out, and seeing them running, strove to bar their way. Wallace, however, cleared a path by sweeping blows with his sword, and dashing through the gates into the open country they were safe. For some distance they ran without checking their speed, and then as they neared a wood, where they no longer feared pursuit, they broke into a walk.

"My best thanks to you," Wallace said to Archie. "You have indeed proved yourself a staunch and skilful swordsman, and Duncan's opinion is well founded. Indeed I could wish for no stouter sword beside me in a fight; but what will you do now? If you think that you were not recognized you can return to your uncle; but if any there knew you, you must even then take to the woods with me."

"I was recognized," Archie said in a tone of satisfaction. "The armed knight whom you saw attack me was Sir John Kerr, the slayer of my father and the enemy of my house. Assuredly he will bring the news of my share in the fray to the ears of the governor."

"I do not think that he will carry any news for some time," Sir William replied; "for that blow you gave him on the head must have well nigh brought your quarrel to an end. It is a pity your arm had not a little more weight, for then, assuredly you would have slain him."

"But the one with him was his son," Archie said, "and would know me too; so that I shall not be safe for an hour at my uncle's."

"In that case, Sir Archie, you must needs go with me, there being no other way for it, and truly, now that it is proved a matter of necessity, I am glad that it has so chanced, since I see that your youth is indeed no drawback; and Sir John Grahame will agree with me that there is no better sword in my company."

"Yes, indeed," the young knight said. "I could scarce believe my eyes when I saw one so young bear himself so stoutly. Without his aid I could assuredly have made no way through the soldiers who barred our retreat; and truly his sword did more execution than mine, although I fought my best. If you will accept my friendship, young sir, henceforth we will be brothers in arms." Colouring with pleasure, Archie grasped the hand which the young knight held out to him.

"That is well said, Sir John," Wallace assented. "Hitherto you and I have been like brothers; henceforth there will be three of us, and I foresee that the only difficulty we shall have with this our youngest relation will be to curb his courage and ardour. Who knows," he went on sadly, "but that save you two I am now alone in the world! My heart misgives me sorely as to the fate of Marion; and were it not for the sake of Scotland, to whom my life is sworn, I would that I had stopped and died outside her door before I entered and brought danger upon her head. Had I had time to reflect, methinks I would have done so; but I heard her call, I saw the open door, and without time for thought or reflection I leapt in."

"You must not blame yourself, Sir William," Grahame said, "for, indeed, there was no time for thought; nor will I that it should have been otherwise, even should harm, which I cannot believe, befall Mistress Marion. It is on you that the hopes of Scotland now rest. You have awakened her spirit and taught the lesson of resistance. Soon I hope that the fire now smouldering in the breast of every true Scotsman will burst into flame, and that Scotland will make a great effort for freedom; but were you to fall now, despair would seize on all and all hope of a general rising be at an end."

Wallace made no reply, but strode silently forward. A short distance farther they came to the spot where three of Wallace's followers were holding horses, for he had on his entry into Lanark, been accompanied by another of his party, who had been slain at the commencement of the fray. Wallace bade Archie mount the spare horse, and they then rode to Cart Lane Craigs, scarce a word being spoken on their journey.

Wallace's headquarters were upon a narrow shelf of rock on the face of a steep and craggy hill. It was well chosen against surprise, and could be held against sudden attack even by a large force, since both behind and in front the face of the hill was too steep to be climbed, and the only approach was by a steep and winding path which two men could hold against a host. The ledge was some 50 feet long by 12 wide. At the back a natural depression in the crags had been deepened so as to form a shallow cave just deep enough to afford a defense against the weather; here a pile of heather served as a bed for Wallace, Grahame, and one or two others of the leaders of his company, and here Wallace told Archie that his place was to be. On the ledge without were some low arbours of heather in which lay ten of Wallace's bravest companions; the rest of his band were scattered among the surrounding hills, or in the woods, and a bugle note repeated from place to place would call all together in a short space of time.

Of stores and provisions there was no lack, these having been obtained in very large quantities from the convoys of supplies and the castles that had been captured. Money, too, was not wanting, considerable amounts having fallen into their hands, and the peasantry through all the country round were glad in every way to assist the band, whom they regarded as their champions.

Archie sat down by Sir John Grahame, who gave him particulars regarding the strength of the various bands, their position, the rules which had been laid down by Wallace for their order, the system of signals and other particulars; while Wallace paced restlessly up and down the narrow shelf, a prey to the keenest anxiety. Towards nightfall two of the men were despatched towards Lanark to endeavour to find out what had taken place there; but in an hour they returned with a woman, whom both Sir William and Archie recognized as one of the female attendants of Marion. A single glance sufficed to tell her tale. Her face was swollen with crying, and wore a look of horror as well as of grief.

"She is dead!" Wallace exclaimed in a low voice.

"Alas!" the woman sobbed, "that I should have to tell it. Yes, my dear mistress is dead; she was slain by the orders of the governor himself, for having aided your escape."

A groan burst from Wallace, a cry of horror and indignation from his followers. The former turned, and without a word strode away and threw himself upon the heather. The others, heart struck at the cruel blow which had befallen their chief, and burning with indignation and rage, could only utter oaths of vengeance and curses on the English tyrants.

After a time Grahame went to the cave, and putting his hand on Wallace's shoulder strove to address a few words of consolation to him.

Sir William rose: "I have done with weeping, Grahame, or rather I will put off my weeping until I have time for it. The first thing to think of is vengeance, and vengeance I swear that I will have. This night I will strike the first blow in earnest towards freeing Scotland. It may be that God has willed it that this cruel blow, which has been struck at me, shall be the means of bringing this about. Hitherto, although I have hated the English and have fought against them, it has been but fitfully and without order or method, seeing that other things were in my heart. Henceforth I will live but for vengeance and Scotland. Hitherto the English have regarded me as an outlaw and a brigand. Henceforth they shall view me as an enemy to be dreaded. Sound the signal of assembly at once. Signify that as many as are within reach shall gather below in two hours. There will be but few, for, not dreaming of this, the bands but two days since dispersed. But even were there none but ourselves it would suffice. Tonight we will take Lanark."

G. A. Henty