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The Scottish Chiefs
Chapter 15 - The Hut

MEANWHILE, the Lady Helen, hardly rational from the horror and hope that agitated her, extricated herself from the dead body; and in her eagerness to escape, would certainly have fallen over the precipice, had not the same gallant arm which had covered her persecutor with wounds, caught her as she sprang from the litter. "Fear not, lady," exclaimed a gentle voice; "you are under the protection of a Scottish knight."

There was a kindness in the sound, that seemed to proclaim the speaker to be of her own kindred; she felt as if suddenly rescued by a brother; and dropping her head on his bosom, a shower of grateful tears relieved her heart, and prevented her fainting. Aware that no time was to be lost; that the enemy might soon be on him again, be clasped her in his arms; and with the activity of a mountain deer, crossed two rushing streams; leaping from rock to rock, even under the foam of their flood; and then treading with a light and steady step, an alpine bridge of one single tree, which arched the cataract below, he reached the opposite side ; where, spreading his plaid upon the rock, he laid the trembling Helen upon it. Then softly breathing his bugle, in a moment he was surrounded by a number of men, whose rough gratulations might have reawakened the alarm of Helen, had she not still heard his voice. There was graciousness, and balm-distilling sweetness in every tone; and she listened in calm expectation.

He directed the men to take their axes, and cut away, on their side of the fall, the tree which arched it. It was probable the villain he had just assailed, or his followers, might pursue him; and he thought it prudent to demolish the bridge.

The men obeyed, and the warrior returned to his fair charge. It was raining fast; and fearful of farther exposing her to the inclemencies of the night, he proposed leading her to shelter. "There is a hermit’s cell on the northern side of this mountain. I will conduct you thither in the morning, as to the securest asylum; but meanwhile we must seek a nearer refuge."

"Any where, sir, with honour my guide," answered Helen, timidly.

"You are safe with me, lady," returned he, "as in the arms of the Virgin. I am a man who can now have no joy in womankind, but when as a brother I protect them. Whoever you are, confide in me, and you shall not be betrayed."

Helen confidently gave him her hand, and strove to rise; but at the first attempt, the shackles piercing her ankles, she sunk again to the ground. The cold iron on her wrists touched the hand of her preserver. He now recollected his surprise on hearing the clank of chains, When carrying her over the bridge: "Who," inquired he, could have done this unmanly deed?"

"The wretch from whom you rescued me; to prevent my escape from a captivity worse than death."

While she spoke, he wrenched open the manacles from her wrists and ankles, and threw them over the precipice. As she heard them dash into the torrent, an unutterable gratitude filled her heart; and again giving her hand to him, to lead her forward, she said with earnestness, "O, sir, if you have a wife or sister—should they ever fall into the like peril with mine; for in these terrific times, who is secure? may Heaven reward your bravery, by sending them such a preserver I"

The stranger sighed deeply: "Sweet lady," returned he, "I have no sister, no wife. But my kindred is nevertheless very numerous, and I thank thee for thy prayer." The hero sighed profoundly again; and led her silently down the windings of the declivity. Having proceeded with caution, they descended into a little wooded dell, and soon approached the half-standing remains of what had once been a shepherd’s hut.

"This:" said the knight, as they entered, "was the habitation of a good old man, who fed his flock on these mountains; but a band of Southron soldiers forced his only daughter from him; and, plundering his little abode, drove him out upon the waste. He perished the same night, by grief, and the inclemencies of the weather. His son, a brave youth, was left for dead by his sister’s ravishers; but I found him in this dreary solitude; and he told me the too general story, of his wounds and his despair. Indeed, lady, when I heard your shrieks from the opposite side of the chasm, I thought they might proceed from this poor boy’s sister, and I flew to restore them to each other."

Helen shuddered, as he related a tale so nearly resembling her own; and trembling with weakness, and honor of what might have been her fate, had she not been rescued by this gallant stranger, the sunk exhausted upon a turf seat. The chief still held her hand. It was very cold, and he called to his men to seek fuel to make a, fire. While his messengers were exploring the crannies of the rocks, for dried leaves and sticks, Helen, totally overcome, leaned almost motionless against the wall of the hut. Finding, by her shortening breath, that she was fainting, the knight took her in his arms, and supporting her on his breast, chafed her hands and her forehead. His efforts were vain: she seemed to have ceased to breathe; hardly a pulse moved her heart. Alarmed at such signs of death, he spoke to one of his men, who remained in the hut.

The man answered his master’s inquiry, by putting a flask into his hand. The knight poured some of its contents into her mouth. Her streaming locks wetted his cheek. "Poor lady !" said he, "she will perish in these forlorn regions, where neither warmth nor nourishment can be found."

To his glad welcome, several of his men soon after entered with a quantity of withered boughs, which they had found in the fissures of the rock at some distance. With these a fire was speedily kindled; and its blaze diffusing comfort through the chamber, he had the satisfaction of hearing a sigh from the breast of his charge. Her head still leaned on his bosom, when she opened her eyes. The light shone full on her face.

"Lady," said he, "I bless God you are revived." Her delicacy shrunk at the situation in which she found herself, and raising herself, though feebly, she thanked him, and requested a little water. It was given to her. She drank some; and would have met the fixed and compassionate gaze of the knight, had not weakness cast such a film before her eyes that she scarcely saw anything. Being still languid, she leaned her head on the turf seat. Her face was pale as marble, and her long hair, saturated with wet, by its darkness made her look of a more deadly hue.

"Death! how lovely canst thou be!" sighed the knight to himself—he even groaned. Helen started, and looked around her with alarm. "Fear not," said he, "I only dreaded your pale looks: but you revive, and will yet bless all that are dear to you. Suffer me, sweet lady, to drain the dangerous wet from these tresses?" He took hold of them as he spoke. She saw the water running from her hair over his hands, and allowing his kind request, he continued wiping her glossy locks with his scarf, till, exhausted by fatigue, she gradually sunk into a profound sleep.

Dawn had penetrated the ruined walls of the hut, before Lady Helen awoke. But when she did, she was refreshed; and opening her eyes—hardly conscious where she was, or whether all that floated in her memory were not the departing vapours of a frightful dream—she turned her head, and fixed them upon the figure of the knight, who was seated near her. His noble air, and the pensive expression of his fine features, struck like a spell upon her gathering recollections; she at once remembered all she had suffered, all that she owed to him. She moved. Her preserver turned his eyes towards her: seeing she was awake, he rose from the side of the dying embers, he had sedulously kept alive during her slumber, and expressed his hopes that she felt restored. She returned him a grateful reply, in the affirmative; and he quitted her, to rouse his men for their journey to the hermit’s cell.

When he re-entered, he found Helen braiding up the fine hair which had so lately been scattered by the elements. She would have risen at his approach, but he seated himself on a stone at her feet. "We shall be detained here a few minutes longer;" said he: "I have ordered my men to make a litter of crossed branches, to bear you on their shoulders. Your delicate limbs would not be equal to the toil of descending these heights, to the glen of stones. The venerable man who inhabits there, will protect you, until he can summon your family, or friends, to receive his charge."

At these words, which Helen thought were meant to reprove her for not having revealed herself, she blushed; but fearful of breathing a name under the interdict of the English governors, and which had already spread devastation over all with whom it had been connected; fearful of involving her preserver’s safety, by making him aware of the persecuted creature he had rescued; she paused for a moment; and then, with the colour heightening on her cheeks, replied: "For your humanity, brave sir, shown this night to a friendless woman, I must be ever grateful; but not even to the hermit, may I reveal my name. It is fraught with danger to every honest Scot who should know that he protects one who bears it; and therefore, least of all, noble stranger, would I breathe it to you." She averted her face, to conceal the emotions she could not subdue.

The knight looked at her intensely, and profoundly sighed. Half her unbraided locks lay upon her bosom, which now heaved with suppressed feelings; and the fast-falling tears, gliding through her long eyelashes, dropped upon his hand—he sighed again, and tore his eyes from her countenance. "I ask not, madam, to know what you think proper to conceal. But danger has no alarms for me, when, by incurring it, I serve those who need a protector."

A sudden thought flashed across her mind: might it not be possible that this tender guardian of her safety, this heroic profferer of service, was the noble Wallace? But the vain idea fled. He was pent up amidst the beleaguered defiles of Cartlane craigs, sworn to extricate the helpless families of his followers, or to perish with them. This knight was accompanied by none but men: and his kind eyes shone in too serene a lustre, to be the mirrors of the disturbed soul of the suffering chief of Ellerslie. "Ah! then," murmured she to herself, "are there two men in Scotland, who will speak thus?" She looked up in his face. The plumes of his bonnet shaded his features: but she saw they were, paler than on his entrance, and a strange expression of distraction agitated their before composed lines. His eyes were bent to the ground as he proceeded: —"I am the servant of my fellow-creatures—command me, and my few faithful followers; and if it be in the power of such small means to succour you, or yours, I am ready to answer for their obedience. If the villain from whom I had the happiness to release you, be yet more deeply implicated in your sorrows, tell me how they can be relieved, and I will attempt it. I shall make no new enemies by the deed, for the Southrons and I are at eternal enmity."

CliffHelen could not withdraw her eyes from his varying countenance, which, from underneath his dark plumes, seemed like a portentous cloud, at intervals to emit the rays of the cheering sun, or the lightning of threatening thunder. " Alas !" replied she, "ill should I repay such nobleness, were I to involve it in the calamities of my house; No, generous stranger, I must remain unknown. Leave me with the hermit; and from his cell I will send to some relation to take me thence."

"I urge you no more, gentle lady;" replied the knight, rising: "were I at the head of an army, instead of a handful of men, I might then have a better argument for offering my services; but as it is, I feel my weakness. and seek to know no further."

Helen trembled with unaccountable emotion. "Were you at the head of an army, I might then dare to reveal the full weight of my anxieties; but Heaven has already been sufficiently gracious to me by your hands, in redeeming me from my crueliest enemy: and for the rest, I put my trust in the same over-ruling Providence." At this moment a man entered, and told the knight the vehicle was finished, the morning fine, and his men ready to march. He turned towards Helen: "May I conduct you to the rude carriage we have prepared ?"

Helen gathered her mantle about her: and the knight throwing his scarf over her head,—it had no other covering,—she gave him her hand, and he led her out of the hut to the side of the bier. It was overlaid with the men’s plaids. The knight placed her on it; and the carriers raising it on their shoulders, her deliverer led the way, and they took their course down the mountain.

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