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Wilson's Border Tales
The Crooked Comyn


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 boasted—and he admitted—that 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 thy triumph."

"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 nature’s 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 nature’s handiwork as the English baron, John Russel, who banqueted with us yesterday—a thing of red and white pigment—an automaton mannerist, without a mind—every woman’s slave, and never his own master—thy 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 me—thy mental superiority—would 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 other’s 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 Scotland’s 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 nothing—these tormina laugh at the puny quencher of fires fiercer than those of Gehenna. I must submit. Thou wilt have no terce from my earldom, wherein I am not yet feudally seised. Alas! shall my innocent be left terceless—a beggar—the dependant of my brothers? ‘Sdeath, this is worse than these scorching fires! Call the clerk of St John’s—quick."

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 me."

"The liferent disposition I shall make out," replied the clerk of St John’s; for Comyn’s 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 Margaret—the fee going to thy eldest brother as heir—what 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 hour’s 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 mortification."

"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 lord’s 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 —water!—water!"

"Hie thee away to thy work good monk," cried the lady. "There’s 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 Russel—who ill-used her, and stood in continual fear of being treated in the same way as Comyn—and, finally, drowned herself in the river Thames.


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