Robert the Bruce—If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Again
All seemed lost. The King was a hunted beggar. A great sum of money was offered to any who should betray him. Death threatened any who should help him. Yet a few friends were still faithful to him and shared his wanderings and hardships.
Their clothes were torn and shabby, their shoes worn out. For food they hunted wild animals and gathered roots and berries from the woods. They found shelter from the cold, and wind, and rain, under dark pine-trees or in wild, rocky caves.
It was a hard life for men, yet women shared it too. For the Queen and her ladies refused to live in comfort while the King was hunted among the hills. So one day, accompanied by Nigel Bruce, the King's young brother, they rode out from Aberdeen to seek him.
The King was very glad to see his dear wife again, and he and his brave followers did their best to make the Queen and her ladies comfortable. None worked harder than Sir James the Douglas. He shot the deer and fished for salmon and trout; he gathered heather for beds; he was always busy and always gay, and kept every one from despairing, even when things looked darkest. The King too did his best to keep up the spirits of the little company. At night when they gathered round the watch fires, he would read stories out of old books, or tell tales of bygone days and of far-off countries, and listening to these stories the little company would forget for a time their own sufferings and dangers.
They were driven about from place to place. Sometimes they were attacked, and had to defend themselves. Often the ladies were in great danger, and at last King Robert was so beset by his enemies, that he persuaded the Queen to leave him and to go with her ladies to the castle of Kildrummie, which was the only castle still left to him. So the Queen took a sad farewell, and went away under the care of Nigel, King Robert's brother. She little guessed that long years were to pass before they should see each other again.
Bruce was now left with only two hundred men. He had no horses, as he had given them all to the knights who had gone to take care of the Queen and the other ladies. The enemy were close upon him, and with all haste he sought a still safer hiding-place.
He and his men went quickly through the land until they came to Loch Lomond. To cross the loch seemed impossible. To go round it would have been very difficult, and would have taken a long time, yet what was to be done? They were almost in despair, when they found a little boat. It was old and leaky, and so small that only three could cross in it at a time. But it was enough for those brave men, used to every kind of danger. Those who could swim tied their clothes into bundles, placed the bundles upon their heads, and so swam over. The others, by two and by two, crossed in the little leaky boat, until all were safely over. It took a long time, but while the men were waiting for the boat to return, King Robert told stories to them, so that the hours seemed to pass quickly.
At last, after many difficulties and dangers, the little band arrived safely at the coast. There they found a ship in which they sailed over the sea to an island off the coast of Ireland. Here Bruce spent the cold winter months, safe, for a time, from his bitter enemies, and happy, no doubt, in the thought that his Queen too was safe in his strong castle of Kildrummie.
But Edward was very angry when he knew that Bruce had again escaped him. So he sent soldiers to storm the castle in which the Queen was. The castle was taken, the brave knights who defended the ladies were killed, and the ladies themselves were all made prisoners.
The Queen, her daughter the little Princess Marjorie, and the King's sisters, were sent to prisons in England and Scotland, where they remained for many years. The brave Countess of Buchan was also with the Queen, and Edward now determined to punish her for having set the crown upon the head of Robert the Bruce.
He ordered a great cage of wood and iron to be made, and in this the Countess was shut up like an imprisoned wild animal. The cage, some people say, was hung upon the walls of Berwick castle, so that all passers-by might see the poor Countess and be warned by her fate not to displease the King of England. Other people think that King Edward was not quite so cruel as that; and they say that the cage was placed inside a room. However that may be, the poor lady was kept caged up like an animal for four years. During all that long time no one was allowed to come near or to speak to her, except the servants who brought her food and drink, and care was taken that they should not be Scottish.
One by one the friends of Bruce were taken prisoner by the English, and by Edward's orders put to death in the most cruel fashion. Among them was Nigel, the King's brave and handsome young brother. It seemed truly as if the cause of Robert the Bruce was lost.
When news of all these misfortunes was brought to Bruce, he did indeed almost despair.
Sad, disappointed, and weary of the struggle, he lay, one day, upon his bed of straw, in the poor little cottage where he had found a refuge. What should he do, he asked himself. Everything seemed against him. Was it worth while fighting and struggling any more? "I will give up my right to the throne," he thought. "I will send away all my brave men and tell them to make peace with Edward, for if they stay with me nothing but death and imprisonment awaits them. Then, alone, I will go to the Holy Land and die fighting for the Cross. Perhaps then heaven will forgive me for having killed Red Comyn, for surely these evils come upon me in punishment for my sin. It is no use fighting for the crown any longer."
Full of such sad thoughts King Robert looked up at the bare rafters of the cottage roof. They were brown with smoke, and covered with dust and cobwebs. From one of the cobwebs hung a spider. The spider seemed to be working very hard, and, idly at first, the King began to watch it. He soon saw what it was about. It was trying to swing itself from one rafter to another. It tried, and failed. Again it tried, and again it failed. The King began to be interested in the little creature. "It is just like me," he thought, "I have tried and failed." Six times the spider failed. The King became more and more interested. More and more anxiously he watched. "If the spider can succeed, why should not I?" he said. Again the spider tried, and this time, hurrah! it succeeded, and landed safely on the opposite rafter. "Bravo," cried Bruce, and he rose from his bed, cheered and comforted, and quite decided to try again.