Sir James Douglas, the companion of Bruce, and well known by his appellation of the “Black Douglas,” was once, during the hottest period of the exterminating war carried on by him and his colleague Randolph, against the English, stationed at Linthaughlee, near Jedburgh. He was resting, himself and his men after the toils of many days’ fighting-marches through Teviotdale; and, according to his custom, had walked round the tents, previous to retiring to the unquiet rest of a soldier’s bed. He stood for a few minutes at the entrance to his tent contemplating the scene before him, rendered more interesting by a clear moon, whose silver beams fell, in the silence of a night without a breath of wind, calmly on the slumbers of mortals destined to mix in the melée of dreadful war, perhaps on the morrow. As he stood gazing, irresolute whether to retire to rest or indulge longer in a train of thought not very suitable to a warrior who delighted in the spirit-stirring scenes of his profession, his eye was attracted by the figure of an old woman, who approached him with a trembling step, leaning on a staff, and holding in her left hand three English cloth-shaft arrows.
“You are he who is ca’ed the guid Sir James?” said the old woman.
“I am, good woman,” replied Sir James. “Why hast thou wandered from the sutler’s camp?”
“I dinna belang to the camp o’ the hoblers,” answered the woman. “I hae been a residenter in Linthaughlee since the day when King Alexander passed the door o’ my cottage wi’ his bonny French bride, wha was terrified awa’ frae Jedburgh by the death’s-head whilk appeared to her on the day o’ her marriage. What I hae suffered sin’ that day” (looking at the arrows in her hand) “lies between me an’ heaven.”
“Some of your sons have been killed in the wars, I presume?” said Sir James.
“Ye hae guessed a pairt o’ my waes,” replied the woman. “That arrow” (holding out one of the three) “carries on its point the bluid o’ my first born; that is stained wi’ the stream that poured frae the heart o’ my second; and that is red wi’ the gore in which my youngest weltered, as he gae up the life that made me childless. They were a’ shot by English hands, in different armies, in different battles. I am an honest woman, and wish to return to the English what belongs to the English; but that in the same fashion in which they were sent. The Black Douglas has the strongest arm an’ the surest ee in auld Scotland; an’ wha can execute my commission better than he?”
“I do not use the bow, good woman,” replied Sir James. “I love the grasp of the dagger or the battle-axe. You must apply to some other individual to return your arrows.”
“I canna tak’ them hame again,” said the woman, laying them down at the feet of Sir James. “Ye’ll see me again on St. James’ E’en.”
The old woman departed as she said these words.
Sir James took up the arrows, and placed them in an empty quiver that lay amongst his baggage. He retired to rest, but not to sleep. The figure of the old woman and her strange request occupied his thoughts, and produced trains of meditation which ended in nothing but restlessness and disquietude. Getting up at daybreak, he met a messenger at the entrance of his tent, who informed him that Sir Thomas de Richmont, with a force of ten thousand men, had crossed the Borders, and would pass through a narrow defile, which he mentioned, where he could be attacked with great advantage. Sir James gave instant orders to march to the spot; and, with that genius for scheming, for which he was so remarkable, commanded his men to twist together the young birch-trees on either side of the passage to prevent the escape of the enemy. This finished, he concealed his archers in a hollow way, near the gorge of the pass.
The enemy came on; and when their ranks were embarrassed by the narrowness of the road, and it was impossible for the cavalry to act with effect, Sir James rushed upon them at the head of his horsemen; and the archers, suddenly discovering themselves, poured in a flight of arrows on the confused soldiers, and put the whole army to flight. In the heat of the onset, Douglas killed Sir Thomas de Richmont with his dagger.
Not long after this, Edmund de Cailon, a knight of Gascony, and Governor of Berwick, who had been heard to vaunt that he had sought the famous Black Knight, but could not find him, was returning to England, loaded with plunder, the fruit of an inroad on Teviotdale. Sir James thought it a pity that a Gascon’s vaunt should be heard unpunished in Scotland, and made long forced marches to satisfy the desire of the foreign knight, by giving him a sight of the dark countenance he had made a subject of reproach. He soon succeeded in gratifying both himself and the Gascon. Coming up in his terrible manner, he called to Cailon to stop, and, before he proceeded into England, receive the respects of the Black Knight he had come to find, but hitherto had not met. The Gascon’s vaunt was now changed; but shame supplied the place of courage, and he ordered his men to receive Douglas’s attack. Sir James assiduously sought his enemy. He at last succeeded; and a single combat ensued, of a most desperate character. But who ever escaped the arm of Douglas when fairly opposed to him in single conflict? Cailon was killed; he had met the Black Knight at last.
“So much,” cried Sir James, “for the vaunt of a Gascon!”
Similar in every respect to the fate of Cailon, was that of Sir Ralph Neville. He, too, on hearing the great fame of Douglas’s prowess, from some of Gallon’s fugitive soldiers, openly boasted that he would fight with the Scottish Knight, if he would come and show his banner before Berwick. Sir James heard the boast and rejoiced in it. He marched to that town, and caused his men to ravage the country in front of the battlements, and burn the villages. Neville left Berwick with a strong body of men; and, stationing himself on a high ground, waited till the rest of the Scots should disperse to plunder; but Douglas called in his detachment and attacked the knight. After a desperate conflict, in which many were slain, Douglas, as was his custom, succeeded in bringing the leader to a personal encounter, and the skill of the Scottish knight was again successful. Neville was slain, and his men utterly discomfited.
Having retired one night to his tent to take some rest after so much pain and toil, Sir James Douglas was surprised by the reappearance of the old woman whom he had seen at Linthaughlee.
“This is the feast o’ St. James,” said she, as she approached him. “I said I would see ye again this nicht, an’ I’m as guid’s my word. Hae ye returned the arrows I left wi’ ye to the English wha sent them to the hearts o’ my sons?”
“No,” replied Sir James. “I told ye I did not fight with the bow. Wherefore do ye importune me thus?”
“Give me back the arrows then,” said the woman.
Sir James went to bring the quiver in which he had placed them. On taking them out, he was surprised to find that they were all broken through the middle.
“How has this happened?” said he. “I put these arrows in this quiver entire, and now they are broken.”
“The weird is fulfilled!” cried the old woman, laughing eldrichly, and clapping her hands. “That broken shaft cam’ frae a soldier o’ Richmont’s; that frae ane o’ Cailon’s, and that frae ane o’ Neville’s. They are a’ dead, an’ I am revenged!”
The old woman then departed, scattering, as she went, the broken fragments of the arrows on the floor of the tent.