‘The Thane of Fife’ by Claymore (29 September, 1860)

This retelling of Macduff’s flight from Fife received second prize in a ‘People’s Journal’ short story competition in 1860.

Second Prize Tale

It was a dark and stormy night during the reign of the usurper Macbeth, that a man, who had evidently come a long journey, wended his way up the steep and rocky ascent that leads to M’Duff’s Castle, on the Firth of Forth. The snow was falling fast and thick, when, after mounting the brae, he arrived at the gate which was used as the chief entrance to the Castle. He sought admittance from the warden, who asked loudly for what purpose he had come. “I seek an interview with the Thane,” answered the stranger. Hearing this the warden at once unfastened the ponderous bolts which secured the gates in those rude times, and admitted the messenger, for such he was. Macduff, being informed of his arrival, ordered one of his retainers to bring him into his apartment.

The servitor having left, he began pacing up and down the rough floor in a disturbed state. “If such is the case, by my father’s sword,” said he to himself, “he shall feel the weight of my revenge; but no, he would not dare!” He was interrupted by the entrance of the stranger, accompanied by a party of his retainers. “Declare thy message, fellow,” exclaimed Macduff, as he fixed his piercing eye on the person before him. “Please, my lord, I was commanded by the King to deliver this document into your hands,” uttered he, and so saying, he placed a paper into the Thane’s hand. Macduff’s brow became overclouded, and he muttered between his clenched teeth, “My surmise is then true.” He withdrew to a corner to peruse the document. It was a command from Macbeth to repair to the place where the King was residing, for the purpose of assisting in the erection of a Royal Castle. After reading it, the Thane cast it into the fire, and ordered his servitors to set food before the messenger. He then directed his steps to his wife’s room, for the purpose of consulting as to what should be done. His lady was a woman of powerful intellect, and was far better educated than her rude husband. This he himself knew, and he therefore sought her opinion on the subject on hand. Opening the door he entered her apartment, and told her that he had something for her private ear. She, therefore, dismissed her attendants, and Macduff, after seating himself on a rough bench, related what had passed. On finishing his narrative, she appeared lost in thought, but recovering herself, suddenly asked what he purposed to do?

“I have thought of disobeying the order,” replied Macduff, “and if my vassals stand by me I have little fear of the result.”

“This cannot be,” she exclaimed, “for you are now at enmity with Earl Lainge, who would, along with his dependants, surely help the King. The only thing that can be done is to despatch two of your vassals to represent you; for it is not to be thought that you would descend to serve him yourself.”

“That is the best plan,” said the Thane; “they shall depart at dawn to-morrow.”

He then left the room for the purpose of giving his two followers the needful instructions, who, accordingly, departed next morning. As there were but few roads during the period of which we are writing, a long time would necessarily elapse before any authentic notice as to how they had been received could reach Macduff; he dismissed the affair from his thoughts, and indulged in the pleasures of the chase with as great a zest as ever he before had done. One night, after returning from a hunting match in which he had been engaged, he was about to retire to his couch, when intelligence reached him that one of the vassals which he had despatched had returned. He hastened to hear the tidings form this person. He entered the room in which the servant, who appeared fatigued, was, and asked what news he brought?

“Sad news,” answered the servitor, taking off his bonnet, and saluting the Thane. “My brother-companion is now no more; I only escaped from the talons of the murderer a week since, and came instantly to warn you of your danger.”

“What murderer?” said Macduff, evidently surprised.

“The King, Macbeth,” was the reply.

“What does he intend to do?” asked Macduff.

“To destroy you and your family,” answered the servant, in a low tone. “You must prepare yourself, for, from what I heard, he intends to me here soon with as large an army as he can muster.”

The Thane was about to ask some more questions, when one of the domestics burst into the room, and exclaimed, “Master, master, save yourself! Save yourself! A party of hostile galleys are making for the haven, and if you do not now escape you will have little opportunity of doing so when the soldiers, with which they are crowded, are landed.”

Macduff hastened to get an interview with his wife, and, meeting her on the stair, drew her into a small apartment and asked of her what she thought it would be best to do?

“Do!” was the reply; “why, first let us make ourselves certain whether these are enemies or not. If they are foes, I know a secret passage which leads to the sea, by which you may escape; for if they are what we take them for, it is needless to try and defend the castle when the greater part of our retainers are at Usquebagh Hall.” Having said this, she went to a window that commanded a view of the Forth, and sat down for the purpose of watching the movements of the vessels. After regarding them for some time, she suddenly started up, and pointing to the men who were now landing, exclaimed, “They are the King’s followers! follow me, and I will lead you to a place of safety.” So saying she led the way through a number of corridors, and, opening a secret door, displayed to the astonished gaze of Macduff an aperture large enough to admit a person’s body.

“What is this?” said he on recovering speech.

“It is one of the mouths of a passage, which leads through one of the caves to the sea; enter it and save yourself,” was his wife’s reply.

“But what are you to do?” exclaimed he; how can I leave you to the mercy of such a band of miscreants as the King’s followers are likely to be?”

“As for me,” she replied, “they will surely never injure a woman; but this delay is dangerous, here is a torch, go forward though the cavern until you get to its mouth; you will find a boat on the beach, in which you must cross the Forth, and try and find a place of concealment; now, farewell!”

The Thane, after a last embrace, entered the aperture, whilst his wife went to engage the attention of the soldiers during the time he was saving himself. After Macduff had walked for some time forward, the air, which formerly was impure, became fresher, and in a short time he discovered, to his joy, the mouth of the passage. When out of the cave he sped down to the rocks, and there finding a boat pushed off and commenced his passage across the water. In the meantime his wife had succeeded in keeping the attention of the King’s followers on the castle, by offering to surrender on certain terms. At last, perceiving that her husband’s capture was now impossible, as he was far out at sea, she gave orders to open the gates and admit the soldiers. They were promptly executed, and the men rushing in surrounded the heroic lady, who calmly regarded them with a glance of proud disdain.

“Where is thy husband, woman?” exclaimed the leader of a party that had been exploring the castle in search of the Thane.

Exultingly pointing out to the Forth, where the boat containing Macduff was dimly seen, she replied, “Yonder he, is beyond your power,—capture him now if you can.”

With one accord the soldiery turned their eyes in the direction she indicated, and a cry of fury and disappointment escaped them as they saw she had spoken the truth. Savagely seizing her by the hand their leader hissed out,

“You shall suffer for this my dainty bird!” and giving her into the hands of some of his followers with orders to guard her, he went into the interior of the house for the purpose of seeing what was to be got in the shape of plunder. Two hours after her husband’s flight, she was led into the courtyard of the castle, and there murdered in cold blood by the command of Macbeth’s emissary, the leader of the band. After this tragedy had been enacted, the men, loaded with spoil, departed, along with their commander, who was in no enviable state of mind at the prospect of having to render to the King an account of the expedition.

Meanwhile, Macduff, who had succeeded in procuring a refuge, and was collecting secretly some forces to wrench the kingdom from Macbeth’s grasp, heard with horror how his noble lady had been sacrificed because she had connive at his escape, and, burning with anger, instantly resolved to give the King battle. This he did, and in the conflict Macbeth was slain by the Thane’s own hand. Thus was his wife’s death fully avenged and a boon bestowed on the nation which had long groaned under the tyranny of the usurper.

Claymore.

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