Walter Comyn, Earl of
Menteith, one of the "three Comyns," all earls, who, in the minority of
Alexander III, possessed so much power in Scotland as to be able to oppose
all the other nobility together, was a very remarkable man. Of low
stature, deformed in his person, dark in his complexion, of gigantic
strength, he possessed the spirit of a lion, with the subtlety of a fox.
Neither in the planning nor the executing of a political scheme could any
man in Scotland or England cope with him. He made his two brothers, and
the thirty-three knights who joined him against the measures of the
English regency, his puppets, allowing them no will of their own, but
subjugating them entirely to his direction. He could read the human
countenance even of a courtier of Henry III. of England as easily as he
could do the court hand of the clerks of his time; and, to complete his
character, he so falsified the muscles of his face, by mixing up smiles
and frowns in such a confusion of muscular activity and change, that no
one could tell his thoughts or his feelings.
His wife, the Countess, was
directly the reverse of her husband. Tall in her person, handsomely
formed, with graceful movements and accomplished manners, she was
accounted open-hearted, good-humoured, approaching to simplicity,
destitute of all guile and deceit. Her countenance wore a continual smile,
and was so open and ingenuous, that it might be read like the page of a
book. The best proof of her goodness was the kindness she exhibited to the
deformed partner of her life. She boastedand he admittedthat she was the
only person who could read him, not from her powers of penetration, but
from his yielding relaxation of the deceptive discipline of his face and
manners. He often remarked that it was fortunate for him that his Countess
Margaret was so much of a child; for he felt and acknowledged that it was
only in the presence of children that he considered himself safe in
throwing off his disguise, and appearing for a time in his natural
character. Such are the effects of ambition.
It is reported that, on one
occasion, the following conversation took place between these dissimilar
yet well-mated companions.
"Wert thou not so simple,
fair Margaret," said the Earl, "I would suspect thou hadst no great
affection for him whom King Henry calleth the Crooked Comyn. Men may
love me for my subtlety and power, from interest; my brothers, because I
am their brother, from instinct; and my wolf-dog, Grim, because I join him
in the chase. Now, to gratify my humour for frolic, on this night, when I
think I have overturned the power of the English regent, tell me what thou
lovest me for, good simpleton; for I cannot doubt that simpletons have
their fancies like other folks; and if thou dost not love me, why hast
thou prepared for me, even now, on this night of my triumph, that cup of
warm milk, curdled with sack, which thou callest a posset? I asked it not
of thee, and love must have suggested it."
"What should I love my
Walter for," replied Countess Margaret, "but his noble qualities, placed
in a person, the defects of which, as he states them, I cannot see? Custom
hath made thee straight, and love hath embellished both thy mind and body;
but, above all, I love thee because thou lovest me; for it is an old
saying in our cottages, that love begets love, and"patting him playfully
on the cheek" my heart must have been barren indeed if,after ten
years of thy wooing, it produced no more affection than was able to
prepare for thee a posset of milk and sack on the evening of the day of
"Thou hast made a good turn
of the subject, simpleton," said Comyn. "If I beat my political opponents
during the day, thou worstest me at night by thy ingenious pleasantry.
Thou conquerest even natures twists and torsels, for my crooked mind and
deformed body become straight under the soft ministration of thy simple
manners. I cannot help sometimes thinking that, if it had been thy fate to
be wedded to such a fair piece of natures handiwork as the English baron,
John Russel, who banqueted with us yesterdaya thing of red and white
pigmentan automaton mannerist, without a mindevery womans slave, and
never his own masterthy simplicity would have lost its power, for, having
no foil, it would have merged into the idiocy of thy husband, and you
would have become a pair of quarrelsome simpletons."
"And if thou hadst got a
wife," answered Countess Margaret, smiling, "as deep and subtle as
thyself, the charm thou hast for methy mental superioritywould have been
lost for want of a foil; but thou wert too clever to fall into that snare,
and didst avoid artful and knowing women, though beautiful, as anxiously
as I, if I were still unmarried, would avoid that fair painted Jackalent
thou hast mentioned, the English baron, John Russel. Sheep, thou knowest,
often fight, and get entangled in each others horns. They are then an
easy prey to the wolves. I would not give my Crooked Comyn for all the
Russels of England."
"Thy rattle pleaseth me,
sweet Margaret," said Comyn. "But how is this?I feel ill. What
can ail Comyn on the night of his day of triumph? These pains rack me. So
sudden an attack! These are not usual feelings that now assail me."
"Ill in the midst of
health?" cried Countess Margaret. "What meaneth this?where is the
complaint? Speak, dear husband! tell thy devoted wife what may enable her
to yield thee relief."
"A burning pain wringeth my
viscera," replied Comyn, with an expression of agony, "and unmanneth a
soul that never knew subjugation; that is to me the only symptom of
danger. When Comyn trembleth death cannot be far distant."
"Thou alarmest me, dear
husband," cried Countess Margaret; speak not in such ominous terms of what
I could not survive one solitary moon. What can I minister to thee?"
"Water, water, from the icy
springs of Lapland!" cried the frantic Earl; "yet the frozen sea will not
quench this burning fire! What availeth now the wiles, the subtlety, the
courage of Scotlands proudest Earl? I never was master or director of
such pains as these. Death! how successfully dost thou earn thy reputation
of being the grim king! Water, beloved Margaret, for this miniature hell!"
"It is here, good heart,"
cried Countess Margaret. "God bless its efficacy!drink."
"It is as nothing," cried
Comyn, after swallowing the contents of the cup. "It is as nothingthese
tormina laugh at thepuny quencher of fires fiercer than those of
Gehenna. Imust submit. Thou wilt have no terce from my earldom,
wherein I am not yet feudally seised. Alas! shall my innocent be left
tercelessa beggarthe dependant of my brothers? Sdeath, this is worse
than these scorching fires! Call the clerk of St Johnsquick."
The Countess flew out of
the room, and in a short time returned with the clerical lawyer.
"Attend, sir," cried Comyn.
"Thou seest one in the hands of death; prepare, with the greatest speed of
thy quill a liferent disposition of my whole earldom in favour of Countess
Margaret, my wife. I shall then confess to thee and thou shalt pray for
"The liferent disposition I
shall make out," replied the clerk of St Johns; for Comyns commands must
be obeyed. "But I, in behalf of the holy brethren of our order, must tell
thee, noble Earl, that our prayers can be of little avail if they are
limited in point of time, to the period of the sojourn on earth. Thy
mausoleum must be lighted for ten years with wax tapers, a thousand masses
must be said for thy soul, and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land must be
performed, ere we can hope to bring thee out of purgatory. If thou leavest
the liferent of thy Earldom to Countess Margaretthe fee going to thy
eldest brother as heirwhat is to pay the monks of St John for all their
labours in thus endeavouring to free thee from the pains of that temporary
place of punishment?"
"No purgatory can equal
these pains, man," cried the Earl, "Thou shalt have my earldom this
instant for one hours relief from this hell fire."
"Why, good priest," said
the lady, "canst thou thus talk of worldly possessions to one in such
agony? While I am thus ministering to the body, it would better become
thee to minister to the soul, while it is still in its earthly tabernacle.
I, his dear wife, ask for no liferent! and yet thou requirest a
"It is for his own sake,"
said the priest, "that I have recommended the provision of the means for
saving his soul. We are not bees, to produce wax for tapers; nor birds of
Paradise to fly from hence to Jerusalem, and sit on the holy shrine,
without being fed as other birds; nor are we canonized saints, requiring
no meat nor drink. We must live or we cannot pray. Wilt thou,
madam, give up a half of thy liferent to aid in the redemption of the soul
thou lovest so ardently?"
"Thou hast heard my lords
commands," rejoined the lady. "I cannot allow my mind to be occupied at
present with thoughts of that contemptible trash thou callest gold. What
is all the earldom of the Comyns to the preservation of the life of my
dear husband?Walter, dear Walter what can be done for thee?"
"The priest hath already my
commands," answered the Earl. "The parchment!the parchment!and and
"Hie thee away to thy work
good monk," cried the lady. "Theres no time for parley. Away! Thou seest
that I deny him not his request."
"Water costeth little,"
said the priest, with a smile of suspicion, "and availeth little either to
assuage these pains or those of purgatory."
The priest retired, and in
the course of an hour, returned with the deed extended, and two witnesses
at his back. The paper was read. Comyn was still able to sign it. He
attached his name, and in a few minutes expired.
Thus died that remarkable
man. A dark story now arose in Scotland: Countess Margaret had encouraged
a criminal passion for the English Baron, John Russel, and was openly
accused of having poisoned her husband, by means of a posset of milk and
sack, to make way for her paramour whom she married with indecent haste.
Insulted and disgraced, she and her husband were thrown into prison,
despoiled of their estate, and compelled to leave the kingdom. It was
afterwards rumoured in Scotland that she quarreled with Russelwho
ill-used her, and stood in continual fear of being treated in the same way
as Comynand, finally, drowned herself in the river Thames.
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