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THE BRIDE OF BLACK DOUGLAS

 

With Agnes following closer than a shadow, Meleri stopped by the kitchen to speak briefly with Fiona, then continued on to the great hall. She was puzzled to see Robert lingering in the hall.

"Good evening, milord."

"You seem shocked to see me here."

"Yes, I am quite surprised. I would not think you would tarry here any longer than necessary.

"I was waiting for you."

"For me? Why?"

"So I could walk you to your chamber."

"If you have no further need of me, milady, I will go to my room now." Agnes barely finished the words before she was through the door.

Robert watched her go. "That woman is all sail and no anchor."

"Only around you."

"Why?"

"Because you frighten her, milord."

"Frighten her? How? I did not say a word to her? I think she is terrified of anything that moves."

"Only if it growls."

"I did not growl."

"Perhaps she did not see it that way."

"I merely said I would walk you to your room. You consider that a growl?"

"It was the inflection, your tone of voice. If you will pardon me for saying so, you are a bit of a growler, milord. Instead of pronouncing your words clearly and distinctly, you have a tendency to sound like you are snarling."

"A growler, you say?"

She nodded. "Most definitely."

He laughed and they continued on their way, out of the hall and into the long gallery, which contained what she called the great curved stairway, for it was massive and wide, as large as any she had seen in the grandest castles in England.

Ahead of them, she noticed Corrie and Dram, lying in their customary place, at the base of the stairs. When the dogs heard someone coming, they turned their large heads to watch. It was apparent the moment they recognized Robert, for their tails began to thump madly against the stone floor. "Your dogs happily await you," she said. "Unlike Agnes, they do not fear you."

"And you?" he asked, taking her arm and drawing her around to face him. The intensity of his gaze searching her face caused her to feel the heat rising to her face. "Do you fear me?"

"I have a healthy respect for you," she said, and saw immediately that her response pleased him.

"You have a healthy respect, do you? Well, lass, I suggest you keep it." He gave the dogs a quick glance. "They are not so particular as you would think. They await anyone who will open the gate so they can bound upstairs and find a place to hide while they sleep."

"Yes, I remember my first meeting with Corrie." She glanced at the gate across the stairway. "Who plays the bagpipes?"

"Bagpipes? No one plays, at least not anymore. At one time, Iain was quite a deft hand at it, but he has not played for several years. Now, I am the only one who plays, although it is not something I do often. I cannot remember the last time."

She frowned, wondering who was playing the day they arrived.

"Why do you ask?"

"On more than one occasion I have heard someone playing the pipes. The first time was the day we arrived."

"It must have been the wind you heard."

"No, it was bagpipes. I am certain of it. Each time, the melody has been the same."

"Hmmm," was all he said, and she did not mention it again, preferring to change the subject. "This is a quite the loveliest staircase," she said, admiring the massive forms carved in the oak balustrades.

"Aye, it was quite grand at one time, but it is in need of repair and the molded plasterwork on the ceiling is crumbling. The wood on the staircase is dented and chipped from falling plaster."

She tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling. "Water has leaked in through the roof. I shall add that to my list," she said.

"You have a list?"

She pulled a small piece of foolscap from her pocket and smiled up at him. "With me at all times." Her attention suddenly taken by a huge painting in the gallery as they passed. It was puzzling to her, why she had not noticed it before.

It was quite large, at least five feet wide and eight feet tall, by her estimation. She paused, and stared intently at the painting, and as she did, she tried to decide what it was about this particular piece of art that disturbed her.

She recognized Beloyn Castle in the background, but the two deerhounds portrayed there were not Corrie and Dram. That is when it occurred to her that her attention was held, not by what she could see, but what she could not see. Now, it was obvious, even to her untrained eye, that there had once been a figure portrayed thereó a figure, which was now missing.

She found that most peculiar, so she turned to Robert. "This painting appears to have something missing. Was there a figure, or an object that was painted over?"

"No, it was not painted over . . . but neither is it as it was first painted."

"You mean something is missing." She studied the painting again. "Is it a person?"

"Aye. William, the first Earl of Douglas."

"So, it was painted over."

She could not miss the way his eyes seemed to light up in a humorous fashion as he said, "Not exactly."

"What do you mean, not exactly? It was either painted over, or it was not."

"Was not," he said, looking down at her with a teasing look. "Have you no heard Beloyn Castle is haunted?"

"Haunted? No, I had not heard that particular bit of news. Is it one ghost, or several?"

"Only one that we know of."

"One . . . you mean the ghost of the earl that is missing from the portrait?"

"Aye."

She waited a moment, mulling over what he had said. She did not saying anything for some time, waiting for him to finish the story. When he did not, she ran out of patience. "Are you going to tell me what happened?"

"Aye, I will tell you because I can see you won't rest until you know the way of it."

"Aye," she said, mimicking him, "I won't rest until I have the whole of it."

He went on to tell her the story of the ill-fated Douglas clan and how they came into the title, how they lost it, and regained it again. He began with Sir James Douglas, called the Good, who was one of the captains of Robert the Bruce. "After Bruce died in 1329 at Cardross, he was buried in Dunfermline, without his heart."

"Without his heart?" She shuddered. "Why would they do that?"

"His heart was removed and entrusted to Sir James, who had been instructed by Bruce to take it on a Crusade in fulfillment of a vow, and to bury it in Jerusalem. At the time of his death when he made Sir James take the vow, Bruce gave Sir James his sword, where the words Ďand thair bury my hartí were inscribed upon it."

"You mean Bruceís heart is actually buried in Jerusalem."

"No. It never reached Jerusalem. Sir James was killed in 1330, fighting the Moors in Spain. Bruceís heart was brought back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey."
"How sad to think his heart traveled so far only to be brought back to where it came from. Is that when the Douglas's were given the title?"

"Aye, it was because of Sir James loyalty that Bruceís son, King David II, bestowed the Earldom on the Douglas family, and the heart became the principal emblem of the Black Douglas's. After Sir James death, his brother, Archibald drove Edward III out of Scotland, wearing his shirt and one boot. Edward returned to Scotland in 1333 and marched on Berwick, capturing the Lowlands. In 1355, Berwick was recaptured and the English beaten by William Douglas, the nephew of Sir James, at Nesbit Muir." He paused and looked at her. "Are you certain you want to hear all of this? Family history can go beyond boring."

Not your family history, she wanted to say, but what she answered was, "Yes, every single, solitary word. Leave nothing out."

"This is quite trying on my memory of Scottish history. I have been out of the schoolroom for some time now."

She cuffed him on the arm, feeling relaxed, and enjoying his lighter mood. If only he were like this more often. "For shame! This is your family history we are talking about. You should have every small detail permanently etched in your mind. Now, on with the rest of the story, if you please."

"Are you that anxious?"

"Of course. If Iím going to be haunted by ghosts and forced to believe in them, I have a right to know as much about them as I can."

"As you wish," he said, as he lifted her hand and brought it to his lips. He began to tell her the Douglas history.

It was some time later, when he finished his tale and said, "So, now you know the whole story."

"Not all of it. You never said what happened to the first Earl. The one in the portrait."

"He left."

For an instant she stared at him, not grasping what he said. "He left?"

"Aye."

"What do you mean he left? Painted figures do not leave portraits."

"This one did."

"You are telling me he came to life and walked out of the painting."

"He did not come to life per-se, but simply disappeared. Actually, it was a hundred years later when he left."

"Then, how could he up and leave, unless he was . . ."

"A ghost," Robert finished. "It is his ghost that haunts the castle."

"Have you seen him?"

"No one has."

"Then how do you know he exists?"

"We know."

"Well, I don't know and I donít believe it."

"You may not believe, but some things you will have to accept, and one of them is the fact that the Earl of Douglas was in this painting . . . and now he is not. Explain it any way you like."

"All right, if I should accept that, then tell me why he waited over a hundred years to leave?"

"Beloyn Castle was under siege. Its garrison commanders refused to surrender at first, and this so angered King James, that when they did eventually surrender, he ordered the castle to be slighted."

"Slighted? You mean destroyed?"

"Aye, it was partially destroyed and made uninhabitable."

She looked back at the painting and found herself thinking about the ruined wing. "That is when he left," she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Aye. Before the castle was surrendered, they only had time to remove the furnishings and paintings you see here. They were hidden away in the dungeon. What was saved was only a small fragment of the Douglas wealth. The other paintings and furnishings, were removed before the castle was slighted."

"And moved to the kingís residence, more than likely."

"Probably, at least most of it showed up in his possession within a few years. However, there was one painting . . . a Van Dyck portrait of the Countess of Sussex that has never been found.

Meleri could not hold back the burst of laughter that bubbled forth with her next words. "Perhaps the first earl decided he preferred to spend eternity with the Countess instead of two dogs."

He smiled down at her. She was warmed by this gentler side of him, and found herself hoping he would come to trust her enough to show this side of himself to her more and more. He had such a beautiful smile. What a pity he did not show it more often. "I take it your theory is that when we find the painting of the Countess of Sussex . . ."

"We will find the earl is with her," she finished. "It is as good an explanation as any, donít you agree?"

"Aye, I understand he had an eye for the lassies."

"Especially the Countess of Sussex."

Suddenly, one of the paintings in the gallery fell and went crashing to the floor.

Bam!

Corrie and Dram sprang to their feet and began howling and pacing back and forth.

He laughed. "On second thought, perhaps I was wrong."

It was her turn to laugh. "Fie! I really think you believe all of this ghostly talk."

"I believe it, but I have lost faith in it," he said seriously. "Have I convinced you?"

She shook her head. "No. I do not believe in ghosts and nothing could make me change my mind."

Another painting crashed to the floor.

Bam!

Corrie and Dram were truly agitated now, and their pacing became more frantic. Up and down the gallery, they went, pausing frequently to stare up at the painting with the missing earl.

"If I were you, I might consider changing my mind," he said.

"Why?"

He laughed. "Because if you donít every painting in the gallery will end up on the floor."

Her heart fluttered. "If no one has ever seen him, how do you know he is living here?"

"There are signs . . ."

"What do you mean, signs?"

"There are times when the servants say they hear strange noises and feel a cold chill enter the room. Other times, the dogs will start acting strange and we will get an uncanny feeling that someone is in the room with us, although we cannot see anything. From time to time, things will disappear around the castle, only to reappear somewhere else."

"Humph! That is not much to convince a person to believe in ghosts." She saw his expression and said, "I know, you donít have to see something to believe in it." She thought about that for a moment. "Well, perhaps you donít." She turned to go on up the stairs. "If that is all there is to the story, I will bid you good night."

She started up the stairs, having climbed two steps before his next words caused her to jerk to a halt.

"That is not all there is to the tale."

She whirled around quickly and noticed that going up two steps made her the same height as he. His face was only a few inches away from hers. Memories of their lovemaking darted into her consciousness and she had an overwhelming urge to step closer. She found it strange that she was feeling such a powerful attraction toward him, while standing here in the midst of the stairwell and discussing ghosts. In spite of where they were, she felt drawn to him, and could feel herself tilting forward. His lips were quite close, now. Close enough to kiss. "There is more?" she whispered, her mouth brushing his lightly.

"Aye," he whispered, bringing his mouth back to hers. "A bit more."

He drew her against him, and her arms found their way around his neck. "Tell me the rest of it," she whispered against his lips. "Tell me everything."

He pressed her more tightly against him, his mouth covering hers in a kiss that was intimately questioning, hard, then demanding. It was also long, but even then, when he broke the kiss, she found herself thinking it was not nearly long enough.

"Tell me," she whispered, "tell me the rest of the tale."

He closed his eyes as if to settle his brain and regain some of his earlier composure. It gave her no small satisfaction to think he found her unsettling. He released her and she was sorry she had asked for the rest of the story. Why had she insisted upon talking about a man dead almost three hundred years, when she had a very living, breathing and more than willing live one, right here in her arms?

He kissed her nose and eased his hold on her. "It was not only the Douglas power that the king envied. It was also their immense wealth. Their jewels alone were said to be worth more than those in the possession of the king himself. In fact, they were said to rival the crown jewels of England."

"And the king ended up with them?"

"No. Like the Van Dyck of the Countess, the jewels have never been seen again."

"Were they hidden in the dungeon with the other things?"

"No one knows. The castle was being slighted. We know the paintings and furniture were hidden in the dungeon because they were found later, but the jewels simply disappeared."

"They must have been stolen by some of the king's men, during the siege."

"I donít think so. They would have shown up somewhere by now. They were not the kind of jewels to remain hidden, and some of the stones were well knownóthe kind that would be easily identified."

"Then, they must still be hidden here."

"Iíve always thought so, but the big question is, where? If they havenít been found by now, they probably never will be."

"So they have disappeared without a clue," she said, finding she was becoming quite entranced by this ghostly tale—in spite of her determination to remain impassive.

"Aye, but tradition says they will be returned when the one with the heart of the truest Scot is living here, at Beloyn. At that time, according to the legend, the earl will reveal the location of the family jewels, then he will return to his rightful place in the painting."

She rolled her eyes on that one. "This story is getting more unbelievable by the minute. How can you believe all that poppycock?"

"Let me show you something."

He took her arm and walked her down the length of the gallery, pointing out many of the Douglas women, drawing her attention to the exquisite jewels they wore. Majestic and dazzling, though they were, one stood out over all the othersóa magnificent ruby necklace with stones as big as a flacon's egg.

"Beautiful, isnít it?"
"Yes," she whispered. "Extraordinary. Quite the most exquisite thing I have ever seen."

"They are called pigeonís blood rubies. They are reported to have been taken in Spain during the crusades."

"It is breathtaking. I canít believe such lovely gems may never be found."

"That is the way of things sometimes."

"Has anyone ever looked for the jewels or searched the castle? I mean really, really looked?"

"There have been numerous searches, and many of them on quite a grand scale, not to mention dozens of smaller ones over the centuries. I would think it a fair estimation to say every stone in the castle has been looked at as a possible place of hiding."

"Then perhaps they arenít here. The earl could have hidden them anywhere . . . England, even."

"No, they are here. Supposedly, the earl left a note that said the jewels would never be taken from Beloyn. It was also said the note contained a riddle that if it were solved, would reveal the location of the jewels. Unfortunately, the note has never been found."

"Naturally." She felt the surprisingly gentle stoke of his fingers against her cheek before she realized his hand had moved. "Perhaps it has been found," he said softly. "It pleases me to discover there is more to you than I first thought."

Her face grew warm. "You discovered quite a bit of it the other night," she said, then shyly ducked her head.

He drew her face up to his and as she looked into his eyes, she saw so many thingsó including humor; something reinforced by the slight uplift of the corners of his mouth.

She turned her head and looked off, gazing down at the place where the dogs lay. She did not say anything more, for at that moment Corrie came to stand beside her. She poked her nose against the palm of Meleri's hand. "I think I have been accepted by your dogs."

"It is not a bad beginning," he said, watching her stroke Corrieís head.

She started up the steps again and he fell into step beside her. Neither of them said anything for some time. She thought of this threadbare castle, and how its very walls were radiant with a happy spirit. She had the feeling that here, in this place, she could be anything, do anything, say anything. She could love or be indifferent. She could even hate. She was unfettered, at liberty to stay the same, to change, or to be a chameleon if she so chose. "You are fortunate to have such a family."

"I consider myself fortunate to have you." He stepped toward her and took her in his arms, not in a manner of passion, but as a brother would comfort a sister. She released a long, quivering sigh and said to herself three times, I will not cry. With an acute sense of peace, she laid her head against his chest and listened to the steady assurance of a strong heart.

THE BRIDE OF BLACK DOUGLAS

Mass Market Paperback
November 2000
Mira Books
ISBN: 1551665964

Also available on audio cassette
Abridged Edition
November 2000
Mira Books; ISBN: 1552042405

Large Print Edition
March 2002
Wheeler Publishing
ISBN: 1587241757


© 2003-2004 Elaine Coffman


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