In which Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, risks his life for a glimpse of his lover who is imprisoned in a cage high on the walls of Berwick Castle.
“It is of no use, James,” sighed Bruce. “I must have some sign from her that she holds me in her heart. We must go back!”
“But, my Lord,” protested Douglas.
“Yes, and this time in daylight,” insisted the king. “She must see me!”
“What you propose, my Lord, is suicide,” declared Douglas bluntly. “Why they almost captured us even when we were under cover of darkness! How can you hope to approach her cage close enough to make contact? You will surely be taken prisoner or even killed. You are a wanted man!”
“As always you speak the truth, my friend,” said Bruce, smiling. “But it cannot be helped. I must go to her one more time.”
“Very well, Sire,” said Douglas. “I know better than to try to change your mind, if I assist you in this rash venture, you must promise me it will be the last time!”
“I give you my word, my faithful comrade,” replied Bruce, grasping Douglas by the shoulders. “When I won your loyalty, James, I won a pearl of great price!”
Douglas’ dark features lit up with an unaccustomed smile of pleasure.
“You surely know how to win a man’s heart, Sire,” he said.
Isabella’s fingers were trembling as she unfolded the note that her maid had just brought her. The message was terse and to the point:
‘Look down from your cage at noon tomorrow. A man in a black cloak.’
“Are you sure this message is indeed from the king?” she asked.
“Yes, my Lady,” replied Margaret. “’Twas Douglas that put it in ma hand.”
“He is foolish to place himself in such danger,” said Isabella in a worried voice.
“Och, th’ canna speak sense to a man in love!” grumbled Isabella.
“I fear for his safety, nay for his very life!” exclaimed Isabella.
“Dinna fret, my child,” said the old woman. “He’ll no come to harm!”
“I hope with all my heart that you are right,” said Isabella, holding the note to a candle flame and watching it curl and burn away into ashes.
“You are sure of what you saw,” said the Captain of the Guard.
“Yes, my Lord,” replied the sentry. “A tall man with long black hair thrust a scrap of parchment into the hand of the Lady Isabella’s maid at the baker’s shop.”
The Captain of the Guard stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Clearly a message of some sort. But who sent it? And why? They cannot be planning an escape. The castle is impregnable!” A sudden gleam came into his eye. “Unless…” he said.
“Unless what?” asked the sentry.
“There were rumors that Lady Isabella and Robert Bruce were lovers,” declared the Captain. “Perhaps the Scottish rogue is sending her love letters! But I wonder what the message could be!”
“Why don’t we take that old baggage, Margaret, down to the dungeons and make her talk?” suggested the sentry.
The Captain shook his head. “She’d never talk!” he said. “She’s devoted to her mistress, and too old to care about pain or dying. Besides she might send a message to warn Bruce. No! We need to be on heightened alert for the next couple of days. Perhaps Bruce is planning a visit! If so, we will catch him in a trap from which he will not escape!”
The Captain rubbed his hands together in grim anticipation.
Lady Isabella was pacing the narrow confines of her jail like a caged tigress. She paused for the umpteenth time to peer through the bars down to the street in search of a man in a black cloak. The path below the walls was empty.
“I fear he is not coming,” she said, a clear note of disappointment in her voice. “But perhaps it is as well. He must not place his life in jeopardy on my behalf.”
“Patience, lass,” said Margaret, “if I know the Bruce, he’ll be here anon.”
As if in response to the old woman’s declaration, a figure suddenly appeared walking briskly along the path below. Isabela let out an audible gasp of surprise. The man was enveloped in a black cloak, the hood of which was pulled over his head and face. As the man drew level with the spot below Isabella’s cage, he paused, and, looking up, threw back his hood to reveal his face.
A thrill of joy ran through Isabella’s body. In the bright midday sunshine she could clearly make out the features of her beloved Robert far below on the path. She thrust her arm between the bars and waved frantically.
Bruce raised his arm, and returned the wave, and then shaded his eyes to stare up at his lover’s lofty prison. Then placing his fingers to his lips, he blew her a kiss. A shudder of delight coursed through Isabella’s body. Her heart was pounding as she turned to search for some token of her love. She seized a red silk scarf from the table, and turning back to the bars, she stretched her arm once more out over the abyss. With a prayer in her heart she opened her fingers and let the scarf fall.
It was carried out, floating and drifting on the currents of air, as it tumbled gently to the earth. Isabella watched, her heart in her mouth, as it twisted and turned and threatened to sail far away from the wall. At last, with one last crazy swirl, it swooped to the path, landing but a few paces from her lover’s feet.
Robert Bruce stooped and snatched up the scarf, holding it close to his lips. He breathed deeply, inhaling the delicate scent of Isabella that lingered hauntingly in its folds. He looked up, and blew her another kiss.
Isabella’s joy turned swiftly to alarm as from her vantage point she glimpsed the Captain of the Guard and several soldiers, sprinting down the path towards her lover. She waved and pointed frantically in the direction of the approaching danger. After a moment Bruce turned his head and spotted the soldiers. With a final wave, he turned, and plunged down the steep bank that led to the streets of Berwick town.
The watching Isabella was in a torment of agony that he might fall or turn an ankle, but he nimbly negotiated the bank, and disappeared into the narrow streets, hotly pursued by the soldiers.
“God protect him from harm,” breathed Isabella as her heart gradually slowed its frenzied beating.
“Make haste! He cannot have gone far!” shouted the Captain of the Guard.
The soldiers burst out of the end of the street into the crowded market square, and skidded to halt.
“Look for a black cloak!” ordered the Captain.
The soldiers swept glances around the square, taking in the rows of stalls, covered with vegetables and fruit and eggs and bolts of cloth. They examined each person carefully, noting their tunics of drab grey and brown wool, their shawls and scarves, but saw no sign of a black cloak anywhere.
Suddenly one of the soldiers pointed to a corner of the square. “There, Captain!”
A small piece of black material could be seen protruding from behind a stall.
The soldiers rushed across the square, the Captain in the lead, thrusting people unceremoniously out of their path.
The Captain rounded the stall. “Now I have you, you scoundrel!” he exclaimed as he grasped the man’s shoulder and spun him around.
His jaw dropped in surprise. The man wearing the black cloak was old, white-haired and wrinkled. The man stared at him out of watery grey eyes.
“What is the meaning of this!” the Captain exploded in exasperation. “How did you come by this cloak?”
“A man give it me,” said the old man haltingly. “He came a’running ‘cross the square as if all the devils in hell were on his tail. He stuck the cloak in ma hands and ran awa’.”
“Which way, you old fool!” roared the Captain.
The old man gestured to the cobbled way behind him, and the Captain and his men plunged down the street in hot pursuit of their fugitive.
Several moments elapsed before two men crawled out from beneath a stall nearby. One of them pressed a silver coin into the hand of the old man who raised it to his lips and bit down on it with obvious satisfaction.
“Ye’ll no forget your promise, Sire,” said James Douglas urgently. “That was all a little too close for ma comfort.”
“You have my word, James,” laughed Robert Bruce. “But I’d risk my life all over again for a token such as this!” He placed his hand on his breast where the red scarf could be seen protruding from his tunic. “But now let’s awa’ and back to the task we’ve sworn to carry out – the liberation of our beloved country from the clutches of the English!”
With these words the two comrades slipped off down a narrow street in the opposite direction from the soldiers, and soon the square had returned to the noisy but peaceful bustle of a Berwick market day.