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Book of Scottish Story
The Court Cave

Part 2

On entering the cave he found himself in the interior of a high-roofed cavern, of considerable extent, partly exposed to the seaward side by two arched openings between the lofty recesses of rock which support the roof, that towards the east being the smaller and lower of the two; and the other rising in height nearly to the roof, affording a view of the Firth, and admitting light to the place.

The inhabitants of the cave had ranged themselves along the north and inner side. Nearest the western entrance, stretched on sacks, sheepskins, cloaks, and other nondescript articles of clothing, sat, or rather lay, ten or twelve men, with rather more than double that number of women, all busily engaged in drinking ; farther off, some ragged crones were busily superintending the operation of a wood fire on a suspended pot; while, farther off still, a few bare-backed asses, and a plentiful variety of worse clad children, were enjoying their common straw.

Arthur was immediately introduced to the company of carousers, some of whom received him with a shout of welcome, but others with evident dissatisfaction; and he overheard, as he seated himself, what seemed an angry expostulation and reply pass between his conductor and one of the party. This individual, who was evidently the chief of the gang, was an aged man, with a beard of silver gray, which, as he sat, descended to his lap, entirely covering his breast. His head was quite bald, with the exception of a few hairs that still struggled for existence behind his ears, and this, added to the snowy whiteness of his eyebrows, and the deep wrinkles in his brow and cheeks, would have conferred an air of reverence on his countenance, had not the sinister expression of his small and fiery-looking eyes destroyed the charm. On each side of him sat a young girl--the prettiest of the company; and the familiar manner in which they occasionally lolled on the old man’s bosom, and fondled with his neck and beard, showed the intimate terms on which they lived with him. The rest of the men were of various ages, and though all of them were marked with that mixed expression of daring recklessness and extreme cunning which has long been "the badge of all their tribe," they attracted (with one exception) little of Arthur’s attention. Of the women, the very young ones were extremely pretty, the middle-aged and old ones, more than equally ugly. Young and old, pretty and ill-favoured, all were alike deficient in that retiring modesty of expression without which no face can be accounted truly lovely, and the want of which darkens into hideousness the plainness of homely features. They joined freely in the draughts, which their male companions were making from the horns, which, filled with wine and ale, circulated among the company, and laughed as loud and joked as boldly as they did.

Arthur seated himself in silence, and, somewhat neglectful of the kindness of the female who sat next him, occupied himself in surveying the motley group before him. His eye soon rested on a man seated next the damsel who occupied the place immediately to the left of the chief, and the moment he did he became anxious and interested. The individual was a man of rather more than middle height, of a muscular, though by no means brawny frame.

His countenance was ruddy, and of a pleasant mirthful expression; his eyes were full, of a dark hazel colour; his nose, though prominent, gracefully formed, and his mouth small and piquant. His beard was of a dark auburn hue, and he wore moustaches of the same colour. He was dressed in a hodden-gray doublet and hose, which were fastened round his body by a strong leathern girdle, from which hung a broad sword of the two-edged shape. The manner of this individual was evidently different from those of his present companions, and that from the very pains which he took to assimilate it. There was all their mirth without their grossness, and his kind, affable demeanour to the female part of the company differed widely from the blunt and sometimes brutal behaviour of his comrades.

"Who is that on the left of the old man?" whispered Arthur to the man who had introduced him.

"That—that’s his favourite dell," replied the man.

"Nay, I mean not the woman—the man upon her left. "

"Why, I know not—he's none of us —strayed in like you to share the revelry, I fancy, —though, if he takes not better care of his eyes and hands, an inch or two of cold iron will pay his reckoning. I think he dallies too much with the mort.”

The cool, even tone in which this annunciation of probable murder was uttered, rendered the communication more startling to Arthur than if it had been made with a vindictive exclamation or suppressed groan; and he looked anxiously and steadily on the stranger, whose gallant bearing more and more attracted him. The latter had observed him more than once bending his eyes on him, and was not apparently pleased with the strictness of his scrutiny. Twice, when their eyes met, the stranger had checked a rising frown by emptying the horn which he held in his hand; the third time he set it down untasted, and, fixing on Arthur a look of calm commanding dignity, which seemed more native to him than aught around, exclaimed, in a deep and powerful accent,—

"Friend, wherefore peer you as steadily this way? If you have aught to say, out with it—if not, reserve your ogling for some of the fair eyes near you."

Arthur felt abashed beneath the rebuke which his solicitude for this individual had exposed him to, and he could only mutter in reply something about the young damsel beside him.

"Ah! ah!" replied the stranger, resuming his good humour, "it is to her your looks were sent? Soul of Bruce! but she is well worthy of your wonder. Never—and I have seen many bright eyes — have I lighted on a pair so witching.” Then, turning to the object of these praises, he took her hand, and whispered in her ear something, which, though inaudible to those present, was evidently of no unpleasing nature, as her dimpling cheek unquestionably testified.

The patriarch had viewed, for some time, with ill-dissembled anger, the approaches of the stranger to the temporary sovereign of his affections. But whether he thought them becoming too close, or was enraged at the placidity with which they were received, his indignation now burst out, and as is usual in matters of violence, the weight of his vengeance fell heaviest on the weaker individual. He smote the girl violently on the cheek, and, addressing the stranger in a voice hoarse with passion, poured forth a torrent of words which were to Arthur utterly unintelligible. The stranger, who did not seem to understand the expressions of this address, could not, however, mistake its meaning. The language of passion is universal—and the flashing eye and shrivelled brow of the Egyptian chief were too unequivocal to be misunderstood. He remained silent but a moment, and then, drawing from his bosom a purse, apparently well-filled, he took out a golden Jacobus, and proffered it to the patriarch, as a peace-offering to his awakened anger. The fire of indignation fled from the old man`s eyes as they lighted on the gold, but they were instantaneously lighted up by a fiercer and more deadly meaning. Arthur could observe significant looks circulating among the men, who also began to speak to one another in a jargon unintelligible to him. He felt convinced that the purse which the incautious stranger had produced had determined them to destroy him ; and, prepossessed with this idea, he saw at once the necessity of the keenest observation, and of the danger which attended his scrutiny being detected. He pretended to begin to feel the influence of the potations in which he had indulged, and apparently occupied himself in toying with the willing dell who sat beside him. He now perceived one or two of the men rise, and proceed to the several openings of the cave, evidently to see that no one approached from without, or perhaps to cut off retreat. He saw, too, that they plied the stranger and himself with wine and ale; and, more convincing than all, he perceived on the darkening brow and gleaming eye of the hoary Egyptian, the awakening excitement of a murderous design. The stranger, in the meantime, apparently unconscious of the peril he was in, began again to bandy kind words and looks with the favourite of the chief. The old man looked grimly on, but did not now seem to wish to interrupt the dalliance. Suddenly he drew his hand from his bosom. It was filled with a dagger, which he raised high, evidently with the intention of slaying the unguarded stranger, who was too much occupied with the eyes and hands of the beauty to perceive his villanous intention.

Arthur, who at the moment was lifting to his mouth the ponderous pewter "s’toup," or flagon, containing the ale on which the Egyptians were regaling, saw the wretch’s intent, and on the impulse of the moment flung the vessel at the lifted hand. His aim was fortunately true ; the villain’s arm fell powerless by his side, while the dagger flew to a considerable distance. Arthur then rose, and crying hastily to the stranger to defend himself, drew his blade and made towards him.

The stranger had perceived the intended blow, though, entangled as he at the moment was, he would unquestionably have fallen a victim to it. He now leaped hastily up, and exclaiming loudly, "‘Morte de ma vie!’ — Treason !" drew out his sword, and looked for the foe. Arthur now joined him, and, setting their backs to the rocky wall of the cave, they prepared to defend themselves against the enraged gipsies, who, now shouting wildly, drew from under their cloaks long sharp knives, which they brandished furiously in their faces.

The stranger swept his sword around him in a manner that proved him a practised master, and Arthur manfully seconding him, the Egyptians were kept completely at bay, for none seemed daring enough to trust himself within the sweep of the stranger’s sword, or that of his new companion. But it was only while they could keep their backs to the rocky wall that they could hope to cope with their savage enemies, who, though they did not come near enough to stab, surrounded them as nearly as they could, and yelled and shouted like so many disappointed fiends. There was apparently no means of escape, though there might be of resistance, as the moment they quitted the wall their backs would have been exposed to the daggers of the infuriated assassins. Arthur perceived, too, to his dismay, that sure means were taken to render their length of sword unavailing. Several women were clambering up the rock behind them carrying large blankets and other cloths, clearly for the purpose of throwing over their swords and themselves, and thus yielding them up a fettered prey to these ruffians. All hope of escape died in his bosom as he discovered the well-laid design, and he was about to rush on the savages, and at least sell his life dearly, when he observed the women who carried the blankets, pause and look upwards. He too looked up, and saw, with a consternation that for a moment unmanned him, an immense fragment of loose rock was in the very act of being removed from its memorial resting place, and precipitated on their heads.

"Holy Virgin! help us, or we are lost!" exclaimed the youth; and the prayer had hardly left his lips ere the threatened engine of their destruction was converted into the means of their immediate escape. The ponderous stone dropped so far directly on its fatal errand, that Arthur instinctively crouched beneath the apparently inevitable blow; but encountering a few feet only above his head a projecting piece of rock, it rebounded from the side of the cave in a slanting direction, and, falling clear of its intended victims, smote to the earth the hoary head of the patriarch. He fell beneath the huge fragment, which hid from their sight the face and neck of the Egyptian ; but the convulsive writhings of the unhappy man, which for a moment contorted his frame, only to leave it in utter stillness, told plainly that his long career had ceased, and that the man of blood had become the victim of his own pitiless design.

The Egyptians, panic-struck by this sudden death-blow, set up a loud and stunning wail, as they crowded round the body of their chief; but the stranger and Arthur stayed not to observe their farther demeanour, and, taking advantage of the opening among their enemies, which was now afforded them, sprang out of the cave, and ascended at the top of their speed to the brow of the eminence behind it.

They continued their rapid walk for some time in silence, induced, no doubt, by the tumultuous nature of their feelings, and the violence of their present exertion. At length, having entered a few yards into a wood, which then decorated the place, though soon after to be converted into keel and timbers for the "‘Great Michael," the stranger halted, and, taking Arthur by the hand, said breathlessly,—"By Saint Andrew, young sir, you have done us this day good service. I never thought to have been so indebted to a pint-stoup, trow me."

"But what sorrow tempted you, man," replied Arthur, rather crossly, " to play the fool with the old villain’s dearie in yon wild sort of fashion ; and, above all, what induced you to flourish your well-filled purse in the eyes of those who love gold better than anything else save blood?”

"Whim—chance—‘fate’—I thought at one time. It is long since cunning men have told me that I shall die for a woman, and, by the Bruce’s soul ! I thought the hour had come. As for my Jacobuses, I rejoice I saved them from the filching crew, as they will serve for an earnest --a poor one, to be sure—of my thankfulness to my brave deliverer ;" and so saying, he drew from his bosom the purse which had excited the fatal cupidity of the Egyptians, and gracefully proffered it to the youth.

Arthur had all along suspected-nay, felt assured—that his companion was of a rank superior to his appearance ; and, had it not been so, his present conduct would have convinced him.

"Whoever you are, sir,” said he, " that in this lowly guise speak the language and the sentiments of a noble-born, your own heart will, I know, convince you that I dare not accept your gold. The service I rendered you I would have rendered to the poorest carle in Fife, but were it ten times greater than it was it must not be repaid with coin."

"All are not carles who wear hodden gray and blue bonnets with you, I find," replied the stranger, smiling approvingly. But come, if gold cannot repay the service you have done me, tell me what can.”

"Nothing in your power to perform,” replied Arthur, calmly.

"Try," continued the stranger; "I bear with me a talisman which can command all objects which men in general desire. Choose, then—wealth, worship, or a fair wife !"

There was something so frank, open, yet condescending, in the tone and appearance of this extraordinary stranger, that Arthur could not resist their fascinating influence, and although he could not imagine that any interference on the part of his new friend would produce the slightest change in the stern sentence of Walter Colville, he communicated to him a general outline of his present situation.

The stranger listened attentively to the detail—then demanded how far distant the dwelling of Colville was; and, on being informed of its near vicinity to the spot on which they then stood, declared his intention of immediately proceeding thither and using his influence in Arthur’s behalf.

The latter opposed this resolution but faintly; for, though he was, as we have said, utterly at a loss to conceive how his cause was to be benefited by the proffered kindness of the stranger, yet a vague and almost latent hope of still obtaining Edith never entirely forsook him.

He conducted the stranger through the wood, therefore, by the path which led most directly to the house of Balmeny. On reaching the skirt of the forest, it was agreed that the former should proceed alone to the dwelling of Colville, and that Arthur should remain where he was, and await the result.

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