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The King's Tragedy, An Historical Tale by Alfred H. Miles


In the year 1436, a party of horsemen, weary and belated, were seen hurrying amid the deepening darkness of a December day towards the ferry of the Firth of Forth. Their high carriage, no less than the quality of their accoutrements, albeit dimmed and travel-stained by the splash of flood and field, showed them to be more than a mere party of traders seeking safety in numbers, and travelling in pursuit of gain. In the centre of the group rode a horseman, whose aspect and demeanour marked him as the chief, if not the leader, of the band; and by his side a lady, whose grace and beauty could not be altogether concealed by the closeness of her attire or the darkness of the night. These were the King and Queen of Scotland, James the First and his fair wife Joan, surrounded by a small band of faithful followers, bound for the monastery of the Black Friars of Perth to hold Christmas Carnival.

The weather and the day were wild enough, and these but only too truly reflected the surging passions of human hearts. The brave young king's desire to put down the marauding practices of his Highland subjects, and bring about a condition of things under which a “key” should be sufficient keep for a “castle,” and a “bracken bush” enough protection for a “cow,” together with, perhaps, a not always wise way of working so good a cause, had provoked the hostility of some of the Highland chiefs who lived by stealing their neighbours' property. This disaffection became formidable under the leadership of Sir Richard Graeme, brother of the Earl of Stratherne, whose earldom had been confiscated by the king, who feared its power with perhaps less justice than became his high purpose, and James and his retainers had need to watch and ward against open enemies and secret foes.

Silently, if not mournfully, the little band moved on, picking its way along the uneven shore, and peering anxiously through the deepening shadows for signs of the distant ferry. Like a cavalcade of ghosts, but dimly seen as dimly seeing, they pressed on, all eyes for what light might give them guidance, all ears for what sound might give them warning.

As they were descending to the beach, at the point where the ferry crossed the water, sight and sound combined to startle if not to terrify them; for out from behind a pile of rocks there sprang a wild, weird woman, who with waving arms and frantic shouts motioned them to go back. In an instant the whole cavalcade was in confusion. The horses reared and plunged, the men shouted and demanded who was there, and all the while the weird figure, whose tattered garments fluttered fantastically in the wind, waved her skinny arms wildly, and shouted, “Go back!”

Thinking that the woman might have some news of importance to the king, some of the retainers spurred forward and interrogated her; but she would say them nothing but “Go back”; adding at last “For the king alone—for the king alone!” Judging that she might desire to warn him of some treachery, even among his followers, the king rode forward and spoke to her, when, waving her hands towards the water, she screamed, “If once you cross that water, you will never return alive!” The king asked for news, but the old witch was not a chronicler but a prophetess, and catching at the king's rein she sought to turn him back.

By this time the retinue had closed in upon the singular pair, and the queen's anxiety doubtless stimulated the king's action. Shaking from his rein the woman's hand, he cried, “Forward!” and in a few moments the party had left the stormy land for the scarce more stormy sea.

After crossing the Firth of Forth the party made rapid progress, and in due course were safely and comfortably housed in the old monastery of the Dominicans of Perth. The gaieties of Court and Carnival soon obliterated, for a time at least, the memory of the discomforts of the journey; and the warning of the old witch, if remembered at all, was thought of with pity or dismissed with mirth. The festivities, which were maintained with vigour and brilliance for a considerable time, surrounded the king with both friends and foes. Sir Robert Stuart, who had been promised the kingdom by Sir Richard Graeme, was actually acting as chamberlain to the king he was plotting to dethrone; and the Earl of Athole and other conspirators were among the guests who, with loyal protestations, pledged the king's health and prosperity. Towards the close of the Carnival, when the month of February 1437 had almost waned to a close, while the rain beat upon the windows and the wind whistled wildly around the roof of the old monastery, in grim contrast with the scene of merriment that graced the halls within, the guests were startled by a loud knocking at the outer door. The king, gayest among the gay, was singing “The King's Quhair,” a ballad of his own writing, when the usher interrupted him to announce the old witch of the Firth of Forth. She says “she must have speech with you,” said the usher, and that her words “admit of no delay.” But James was annoyed by the interruption, and, as it was midnight, ordered her to be sent away, promising to see her on the morrow. Driven forth at the king's command, the old beldame wrung her hands, and cried, “Woe! woe! To-morrow I shall not see his face!” and the usher, upon the king's interrogation, repeated her words to him and to the queen. Upon hearing them, both were filled with anxiety and fear, and thinking it best to close the festivities of the evening the king gave the signal for the finish of the feast, and the guests slowly separated and left the hall. The king's chamberlain was the last to leave, and his errand was one of treachery.

During the day the conspirators had been busily preparing for their opportunity. The locks of the hall had been tampered with so that their keys were of no avail. The bars by which the gates were barricaded were removed from their accustomed place. Planks had been surreptitiously placed across the moat that the enemy might obtain easy access to the stronghold; and Sir Richard Graeme, with three hundred followers in his train, was waiting for the signal to advance.

James and his wife stood hand in hand before the log fire of the great hall, while the bower-maidens of the queen prepared the royal bed in an alcove leading from the chamber. The old crone's warning had struck terror to the queen's heart, and unnerved the courage of the king. While looking anxiously at the burning logs in the fireplace, again they heard the voice of the witch, inarticulate in its frenzy, uttering a wild, wailing scream. In an instant the waiting-women had drawn back the curtains, and the red glow of a hundred torches flashed upon the walls of the Hall. The king looked round for a weapon, but there was none to be found; he shouted to the women to shut the bolts, but the bolts had been removed; he tried the windows, they were fast and barred; and then, hearing the approach of his enemies along the passage, he stood with folded arms in the centre of the Hall to wait for death.

Beneath the Hall lay the unused and forgotten vaults of the monastery; and in the king's extremity it occurred to Catherine Douglas, one of the waiting-women, that these might give the king a chance of escape. There was not a moment to lose, so, seizing the heavy tongs from the fireplace, she forced them into the king's hand, and motioned him to remove the flooring and hide in the crypt below. Spurred to desperation the king seized the tongs, and proceeded to force up the flooring of the hall; but the sound of his approaching enemies came nearer and nearer, and the flooring was strong and tough. To give time the women made a desperate attempt to pull a heavy table in front of the door, but it was heavier than they could move. In another moment the floor had given way, and, with a hurried embrace, the king squeezed through the flooring and dropped into the vault. Then came the replacing of the boards—could they possibly do it in the time? A clash of arms in the passage showed that at least one sentinel was true; but the arm of one was but a poor barrier against so large a force. Another moment and the flooring would give no evidence of the secret that it held, for the queen and her bower-maidens were replacing it with all speed. Again the tread of the approaching conspirators; the sentinel has paid for his fidelity with death. Is there no arm can save?

At this moment, as with a flash of inspiration, the thought came into her mind. Catherine Douglas, one of the bower-maidens, rushed forward and thrust her arm through the staple of the removed bolt, and for a little while a woman's arm held a hundred men at bay.

It was a terrible moment, and as the poor bruised arm gave way at last Catherine Douglas fell fainting to the floor.

Sir Richard Graeme and his followers, having forced an entrance, made hot and eager search, but without avail. One of them placed his dagger at the queen's breast and demanded to know where the king was, and would have killed her had not the young Graeme caught back his arm and said, “She is a woman; we seek the king.” At last, tired by their fruitless search, they left the Hall, and then, unfortunately, the king requested the women to draw him up from the vault again. This they attempted to do, with ropes made from the sheets from the bed, but they were not strong enough, and one of them, a sister of Catherine Douglas, was pulled down into the vault below. Attracted by the noise of this attempt, the conspirators returned, and the traitor chamberlain revealed the secret of the hidden vaults. In a few moments all was over,—the flooring was torn up, and, more like wild beasts than men, one after another the king's enemies dropped into the vault, attacking him, unarmed as he was, and killing him with many wounds. How the queen ultimately revenged herself upon the king's assassins is matter of history; but the story is chiefly interesting for its record of the heroic devotion of Catherine Douglas, who was renamed Kate Barlas, from the circumstances of her chivalry, by which name her descendants are known to this day.


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