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“ Not to insure me a life of ages, with all earthly bliss my portion! I have spoken to these offers before. Read them, my noble friend, and then give him as mine the answer that would be yours.” Gloucester obeyed; and while his eyes were bent on the parchment, those of Helen were fixed on her almost worshipped husband; she looked through his beaming countenance into his very soul, and there saw the sublime purpose that consigned his unbending head to the scaffold. When Gloucester had finished, covered with the burning blush of shame, he crushed the disgraceful scroll in his hand, and exclaimed, with honorable vehemence, against the deep duplicity, the deeper cruelty, of his father-in-law, so to mock by base subterfuges the embassy of France and its noble object.
“ This is the morning in which I was to have met my fate!” replied Wallace. “ Tell this tyrant of the earth, that I am eren now ready to receive the last stroke of his injustice. In the peaceful grave, my Helen," added he, turning to her, who sat pale and aghast," I shall be beyond his power!” Gloucester walked the room in great disturbance of mind, while Wallace continued, in a lowered tone, to recall some perception of his own consolations to the abstracted and soul-struck Helen. The earl stopped suddenly before them : “ That the king did not expect your acquiescence without some hesitation, I can not doubt, for when I informed him the Lady Helen Mar, now your wife, was the sharer of your prison, he started, and told me, that should you still oppose yourself to his conditions, I must bring her to him: who might, perhaps, be the means of persuading you to receive his mercy.”
“ Never !” replied Wallace; “ I reject what he calls mercy. He has no rights of judgment over me, and his pretended mercy is an assumption which, as a true Scot, I despise. He may rifle me of my life, but he shall never beguile me into any acknowledgement of an authority that is false. No wife, nor aught of mine, shall ever stand before him as a suppliant for William Wallace. I will die as I have lived, the equal of Edward in all things but a crown, and his superior in being true to the glory of prince or peasant – unblemished honor!”
Finding the Scottish chief not to be shaken in this determination, Gloucester, humbled to the soul by the base tyranny of his royal father-in-law, soon after withdrew, to acquaint that haughty monarch with the ill success of his embassy. But ere noon had turned, he reappeared, with a countenance declarative of some distressing errand. He found Helen awakened to the full perception of all her pending evils — that she was on the eve of losing forever the object dearest to her in this world ! and though she wept not, though she listened to the lord of all her wishes with smiles of holy approval, her heart bled within ; and, with a welcome which enforced his consolatory arguments, she hailed her own inwardly foreboding mortal pains.
“I come,” said Gloucester, “not to urge you to send Lady Helen as a suitor to King Edward, but to spare her the misery of being separated from you while life is yours.” He then said that the French embassadors were kept in ignorance of the conditions which were offered to the object of their mission; and on being informed that he had refused them, they showed themselves so little satisfied with the sincerity of what had been done, that Edward thought it expedient to conciliate Philip by taking some pains to dislodge their suspicions. To this effect he proposed to the French lords sending his final propositions to Sir William Wallace by that chieftain's wife, who he found was then his companion in the Tower. “On my intimating,” continued the earl, “ that I feared she would be unable to appear before him, his answer was, · Let her see to that; such a refusal shall be answered by an immediate separation from her husband.'”
“Let me, in this demand,” cried she, turning with collected firmness to Wallace, “satisfy the will of Edward. It is only to purchase my continuance with you. Trust me, noblest of men; I should be unworthy of the name you have given me could I sully it in my person by one debasing word or action to the author of all our ills ! ” “Ah! my Helen,” said he, “ what is it you ask? Am I to live to see a repetition of the horrors of Ellerslie?” “No, on my life,” answered Gloucester; “ in this instance I would pledge my soul for King Edward's manhood. His ambition might lead him to trample on all men; but still for woman he feels as becomes a man and a knight.”
Helen renewed her supplications; and Wallace (aware that should he withhold her attendance, his implacable adversary, however he might spare her personal injury, would not forbear wounding her to the soul by tearing her from him) gave an unwilling consent to what might seem a submission on his part to an authority he had shed his blood to oppose. “But not in these garments,” said he; “she must be habited as becomes her sex and her own delicacy.”
Anticipating this propriety, Gloucester had imparted the circumstance to his countess, and she had sent a casket, which the earl himself now brought in from the passage. Helen retired to the inner cell, and hastily arranging herself in the first suit that presented itself, reappeared in female apparel, and wrapped in a long veil. As Gloucester took her hand to lead her forth, Wallace clasped the other in his, “ Remember, my Helen," cried he, “that on no terms but untrammelled freedom of soul will your Wallace accept of life. This will not be granted by the man to whom you go; there speak and act in his presence as if I were already beyond the skies.”
Had this faithful friend, now his almost adoring wife, left his side with more sanguine hopes, how grievously would they have been blasted !
After an absence of two hours, she returned to the dungeon of Wallace; and as her trembling form was clasped in his arms, she exclaimed, in a passion of tears, “ Here will I live, here will I die! They may sever my soul from my body, but never again part me from this dear bosom!”
“Never, never, my Helen!” said he, reading her conference with the king in the wild terror of its effects. Her senses seemed fearfully disordered. While she clung to him, and muttered sentences of an incoherency that shook him to the soul, he cast a look of such expressive inquiry upon Gloucester, that the earl could only answer by hastily putting his hand on his face to hide his emotion. At last, the tears she shed appeared to relieve the excess of her agonies, and she gradually sank into an awful calm. Then rising from her husband's arms, she seated herself on his stone couch, and said in a firm voice, “ Earl, I can now bear to hear you repeat the last decision of the King of England.”
Though not absolutely present at the interview between his sovereign and Lady Helen, from the anteroom Gloucester had heard all that had passed, and he now briefly confessed to Wallace, that he had too truly appreciated the pretended conciliation of the king. Edward's proposals to Helen were as artfully couched as deceptive in their design. Their issue was to make Wallace his slave, or to hold him his victim. In his conference with her, lie addressed the vanity of an ambitious woman; then, all the affections of a devoted heart: he enforced his arguments with persuasions to allure, and threats to compel obedience. In the last he called up every image to appall the soul of Helen ; but, steadfast in the principles of her lord, while ready to sink under the menaced horrors of his fate, she summoned all her strength to give utterance to her last reply.
“ Mortal distinctions, King of England !” cried she, “ can not bribe the wife of Sir William Wallace to betray his virtues. His life is dear to me, but his immaculate faith to his God and his lawful prince are dearer. I can see him die and live — for I shall join him triumphant in heaven, but to behold him dishonor himself, to counsel him so to do, is beyond my power - I should expire with grief in the shameful moment !”
The indignation of the king at this answer was too oppressive of the tender nature of Lady Wallace for Gloucester to venture repeating it to her husband ; and, while she turned deadly pale at the recollection, Wallace, exulting in her conduct, pressed her hand silently but fervently to his lips.
The earl resumed, but, observing the reawakened agonies of her mind in her too expressive countenance, he strove to soften the blow he must inflict in the remainder of his narrative.
“ Dearest lady,” said he, rather addressing her than Wallace, “to convince your suffering spirit that no earthly means have been left unessayed to change the unjust purpose of the king, know that when he quitted you I left in his presence the queen and my wife, both weeping tears of disappointment. On the moment when I found that arguments could no longer avail, I implored him, by every consideration of God and man, to redeem his honor, sacrificed by the unjust decree pronounced on Sir William Wallace. My entreaties were repulsed with anger, for the sudden entrance of Lord Athol with fresh fuel to his flame so confirmed his direful resolution, that, desperate for my friend, I threw myself on my knees. The queen, and then my wife, both prostrate at his feet, enforced my suit, but all in vain; his heart seemed hardened by our earnestness; and his answer, while it put us to silence, granted Wallace a triumph even in his dungeon : • Cease!' cried the king. Wallace and I have now come to that issue where one must fall. I shall use my advantage, though I should walk over the necks of half my kindred to accomplish his fate. I can find no security on my throne, no peace in my bed, until I know that he, my direst enemy, is no more.”
“Sorry am I, generous Gloucester," interrupted Wallace, " that, for my life, you have stooped your knce to one so unworthy of your nobleness. Let, then, his tyranny take its
course. But its shaft will not reach the soul his unkingly spirit hopes to wound. The bitterness of death was passed when I quitted Scotland. And for this body, he may dishonor it, mangle its limbs, but William Wallace may then be far beyond his reach.” Gloucester gazed on him, doubting the expression of his countenance. It was calm, but pale even to a marble hue. « Surely,” said he, “my unconquered friend will not now be forced to self-violence ?” “God forbid !” returned Wallace ; “ suspect me not of such base vassalage to this poor tabernacle of clay. Did I believe it my Father's will that I should die at every pore I would submit, for so His immaculate Son laid down His life for a rebellious world. And is a servant greater than his master, that I should say, Exempt me from this trial ? No! I await His summons, but He strengthens my soul on His breast, that the cord of Edward shall never make my free-born Scottish neck feel its degrading touch." His pale cheek was now luminous with a bright smile as he pressed his swelling heart.
With reawakened horror Helen listened to the words of Wallace, which referred to the last outrage to be committed on his sacred remains. She recalled the corresponding threats of the king, and again losing self-possession, starting wildly up, exclaimed, “And is there no humanity in that ruthless man? Ob ! ” cried she, tearing her eyes from the beloved form on which it had been such bliss to gaze,“ let the sacrifice of my life be offered to this cruel king to save from indignity –” She could add no more, but dropped half lifeless on the arm of Wallace.
Gloucester understood the object of such anguished solicitude, and while Wallace again seated her, he revived her by a protestation, that the clause she so fearfully deprecated had been repealed by Edward. But the good earl blushed as he spoke, for in this instance he said what was not the truth. Far different had been the issue of all his attempts at mitigation. The arrival of Athol from Scotland with advices from the Countess of Strathearn, that Lady Helen Mar had fled southward to raise an insurrection in favor of Wallace, and that Lord Bothwell had gone to France to move Philip to embrace the same cause, gave Edward so apt an excuse for giving full sway to his hatred against the Scottish chief, that he pronounced an order for the immediate and unrestricted execution of his sen. tence. Artifice to mislead the French embassadors with an idea that he was desirous to accord with their royal master's