William Wallace—The Turning of a Loaf
Nearly every lord in all broad Scotland bowed to Edward, and owned him as his master. From every castle the flag of England floated. Every battlement was manned by English soldiers. Yet Edward was not content, for the common people would not yield, and Wallace was still free. Among the mountains and the woods he lived with his faithful band of followers. Outlawed and hunted, with a price upon his head, he still was free. For he was so brave and skilful that he could not be taken by fair means, and the people loved him and would not betray him for all King Edward's gold.
But at length, alas! a man, called Sir John de Menteith, was found who was wicked enough to consent to betray Wallace for a large sum of money. Shame it is to say this man was a Scotsman, and greater shame still, he had been one of Wallace's trusted friends.
Sir John laid his plans and waited. He had not long to wait. One night Wallace lay down to sleep, attended only by two of his men. One of them was Sir John Menteith's nephew. Wallace and his other friend slept, while Sir John's nephew kept watch. But he was in league with his wicked uncle. As soon as Wallace was fast asleep he stole his sword and dagger, and then crept quietly away. Menteith and his soldiers were sitting at supper, waiting for news of Wallace, when his nephew arrived. He went to the table, and turned a loaf upside down. It was the signal agreed upon. By that the soldiers and Sir John knew that all was ready, and that it was time to march out and take Wallace.
Ever after it was considered very rude to turn a loaf upside down, if any one called Menteith happened to be at table, because it seemed to mean, "One of your family betrayed Wallace, our hero, to his death." This of course was taken as an insult, as it was something which every honest man would wish to forget.
Wallace was sleeping soundly, when he was suddenly awakened by the sound of armed men. He started up, and felt for his sword. It was gone. Gone, too, his dagger, and even his bow and arrows.
Seizing a stool, he defended himself as well as he could, and succeeded in killing two men with it, before the soldiers closed in upon him. He was so big and strong that it took many of them to seize and bind him. But at last they succeeded.
The false Menteith then swore to Wallace that his life was safe, and that he would only be kept as an honourable prisoner of war. And Wallace, knowing that Menteith had been his friend, believed him. But Menteith lied.
By lonely ways they led Wallace southward, for they dared not take him through towns and villages, lest the people should rise and rescue him. On they went till they crossed the Border. There, Wallace turned to take a last long look at the hills of his dear land, which he was never more to see.
On and on they went, right through England, and at last they reached London. The fame of Wallace was so great, and such crowds came to look upon him, that it was difficult to pass through the streets. Men and women pressed, and crushed, and almost trod on each other, in order to catch a glimpse of him.
For a short time Wallace was kept prisoner. Then, crowned in mockery with a wreath of laurel, he was led to Westminster. There he was tried for treason, for having invaded England, and for many other crimes.
He was no traitor, for he had never sworn to obey Edward. He was a patriot and a hero. That he loved his country was his only crime.
But Edward meant that his great enemy should die. For as long as Wallace lived, and was free, he could never hope really to conquer Scotland. So Wallace, the brave, was condemned to die. Those were fierce, wild times, and Edward's anger was cruel. His death was made as horrible as possible, and his dead body was treated with all dishonour. But the cruel triumph of the Englishmen over his dead body could matter little to Wallace. He had fought his fight, he had done his work, and after his life of struggle and hardship he rested well.
The hatred between England and Scotland has long ago died out. The two countries are now united into one kingdom, under one King. And every one knows that it is best for Scotland and best for England that it should be so.
Wallace in his life did his very best to prevent that union. Yet both Englishmen and Scotsmen will ever remember him as a hero, for they know that, in preventing Edward from conquering Scotland, he did a good work for the great empire to which we belong. If Scotland had been joined to England in the days of Edward, it would have been as a conquered country, and the union could never have been true and friendly. When hundreds of years later the two countries did join, it was not because one conquered the other, but because each of the two free nations, living side by side, wished it. Thus the union became firm and unbreakable, and all Britons may honour the name of Wallace for the part he had in making it so.