Robert the Bruce—How the Bruce Received a Letter and Struck a Blow
Wallace was dead. After a struggle of fifteen years Edward had triumphed, Scotland had reached her darkest hour, and English tyranny made the life of Scotsmen a daily burden and misery. But not for long. Scarcely six months after the death of Wallace, the Scottish people had chosen and crowned a King who was utterly to break down the power of England.
John Baliol had a nephew called the Red Comyn. He now claimed the throne. Robert the Bruce also claimed the throne, for the Bruces had always thought that they had the better right, even when Edward of England had chosen in favour of Baliol. So Bruce and Comyn hated each other, and quarrelled bitterly. In those days great nobles quarrelled and fought among themselves very often and it was these quarrels that had helped Edward many times to defeat the Scots. Bruce, as you know, was an English as well as a Scottish noble, and at one time he had fought for Edward. But now he made up his mind to fight for Scotland, and for Scotland only, and he determined to make friends with the Red Comyn. This Robert was the grandson, you must understand, of that Bruce who had been among the twelve who claimed the throne after the death of the Maid of Norway.
One day as they were riding from Stirling together Bruce began to talk to Comyn. "We must no longer quarrel," he said, "we must work together. Help me to get the crown, and I will give you all my land in return. Or, if you wish to be King, give me your land and I will help you to win the crown."
"I do not want to be King," replied Comyn, "if you will really give me your lands and possessions I will help you."
So it was agreed between them. Then they wrote down what they had agreed to do. Each signed and sealed the paper, and each kept a copy of it.
Bruce then went back to the English court, for his plans were not yet ready, and he did not wish Edward to find out what he was doing. But the Red Comyn did not mean to help Bruce. He still hoped to win the crown for himself. So, no sooner had Bruce gone back to England, than Comyn sent the paper which they had written, with a letter to Edward.
When Edward had read the letter and the paper he was very angry, but he wished to make quite sure of catching Bruce and all the people who were helping him. So, although he was planning how he might seize Bruce and his friends, and put them all to death, he was kind and pleasant to them as usual, pretending that he knew nothing of what they meant to do.
But one of Bruce's friends discovered the King's plan by accident. He dared not write a letter to warn Bruce lest it should fall into King Edward's hands. So, instead of writing, he sent a pair of sharp spurs and twelve silver pennies to Bruce.
Bruce was clever enough to understand what this message meant. It meant, "You are in danger. Mount upon your horse and ride away as fast as you can. Here are spurs; here is money for the journey." That was how Bruce read this strange letter.
The snow lay thick upon the ground. Few people travelled in the wintry weather, and Bruce knew it would be very easy to trace which way he had gone by his horse's hoof marks in the snow. So he sent his horse, and those of two faithful servants, to a blacksmith, telling him to take off all the shoes and put them on the wrong way round. In this way the horses' hoof marks looked as if some one had been galloping towards, and not away from London.
By midnight all was ready, and in the darkness three men rode quietly out of the town. As soon as they were beyond the houses they set spurs to their horses, and galloped swiftly northward. The night was cold and clear, but as they rode, the snow again began to fall, so that the hoof marks of the horses became more and more indistinct.
In the morning a breathless messenger came to King Edward. "My liege," he cried, "Robert the Bruce has fled in the night."
Edward was furious at the escape of his enemy, and sent horsemen in all directions in search of him. But it was in vain; no trace of him was to be seen.
Meanwhile Bruce spared neither spurs nor money. So fast did he ride that in five days he had reached the border. Still on he went, and presently he met one of Red Comyn's servants riding southward.
Robert the Bruce stopped him. "Whither go you?" he asked.
"To the King of England with letters from my master," replied the servant.
"Show them to me," said Robert sternly. And the servant, knowing Bruce to be a great lord, gave them to him.
Without more ado Robert the Bruce broke the seals and read the letters. As he did so his face grew dark with anger. "The foul traitor," he cried, crushing the letters in his hand. "Where is your master, villain?" he then demanded, turning to the servant.
"He is at the convent of Dumfries, my lord," replied the man, trembling, for he saw how angry Bruce was.
Turning his horse, Bruce rode towards Dumfries. His heart was hot with anger, for Red Comyn had written to King Edward that if Robert the Bruce were not speedily slain there would be great trouble in Scotland.
Robert the Bruce had a fierce, passionate temper, but as he rode, his anger cooled, and he made up his mind to reason with Red Comyn and be calm.
In a quiet church, in the little town of Dumfries, the two men met. As the fashion in those days was, they kissed each other, and together they walked up the aisle, talking earnestly. But Bruce could not long control his temper, and with bitter words he accused Red Comyn of having betrayed him to the King of England.
"You lie," cried Comyn.
The two men were now close to the altar steps; the face of Christ looked down upon them, seeming to say, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another." But Bruce, blind and speechless with passion, drew his dagger, and struck at Red Comyn. He fell, and the steps of the altar were stained with his blood.
Bruce had had no thought of murder. In the blind passion of a moment, he had slain a man. He had slain him too in the church, and before the holy altar. White and sick with horror, hardly seeing what he did, he turned and groped his way to the door.
Outside, his friends were waiting for him. "How fares it with you?" they asked, seeing him look so white and wild.
"Ill, ill," replied Bruce, "I doubt I have slain the Red Comyn."
"You doubt?" cried one of his friends, called Kirkpatrick. "You leave such a weighty matter in doubt? I will mak' siccar," which means, "I will make sure." And going into the church, Kirkpatrick stabbed the wounded man again and again, till he died.