Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1641
As Catharine Glover and her father, Simon, walk to church, an unidentified young nobleman, muffled in a cloak, joins them and asks the young woman’s permission to come to her window the next morning to take part in the traditional Valentine’s Day ritual. When she sensibly refuses to make any alliance above her social standing, he leaves in anger. A welcome guest, Henry Gow, appears at the Glovers’ home that evening; he has just returned from a trip on which he sold armor throughout Scotland. Although Simon approves heartily of Henry’s suit for Catharine’s hand, she is disturbed by the young man’s propensity for quarreling. Henry’s fiery spirit leads him to rise up vigorously that evening against Conachar, Simon’s Highlander apprentice, who jealously pours a tankard of beer on the armorer and then tries to stab him.
Henry’s martial bent is put to better use the next morning, when, coming to present himself to Catharine as her valentine, he discovers a group of men attempting to climb through her bedroom window. While he and Simon are fighting them off, Henry severs the hand of one assailant. Again, a mysterious nobleman is involved. When Simon hears his voice, he sends Henry into his house and frees the other man. In gratitude for Henry’s protection, Catharine agrees to be his valentine, but she will not promise to marry him. She assures him that she is not in love with Conachar, who has just returned to his Highlands home, or any other man.
While King Robert is discussing the rising power of the earl of Douglas with his confessor, the earl arrives at the castle just in time to see his son-in-law, the duke of Rothsay, kiss a traveling entertainer. The “Black Douglas” is infuriated and threatens to kill both the prince and the innocent young woman. The duke of Albany, King Robert’s brother James, and another nobleman calm the two men. Rothsay commits the entertainer to the care of Henry, who has just entered the courtyard while engaged in a scuffle with some of Douglas’s men. Although he is reluctant to accept such a charge, especially on the day he has become Catharine’s valentine, he takes the young woman home with him and then sends her on to Dundee the next morning.
The meeting of the king’s council that follows Rothsay’s foolish flirtation reveals the tensions surrounding the weak and easily influenced king. After King Robert prevents a duel between the archrivals the earls of March and Douglas, March stalks out to join the English. Albany and the prince, too, are struggling for control over king and country. As these personal conflicts smolder, the men discuss the enmity between the clans Quhele and Chattan and decide to settle the clans’ differences by setting the bravest men from each clan against one another in a combat to be fought before the king. After Douglas leaves, the king and Albany question the prince about the early-morning disturbance at Simon’s house, reported to them by Sir Patrick Charteris, the provost of Perth. Confronted with a ring found at Simon’s house, Rothsay confesses that he was present; the ring belongs to Sir John Ramorny, his master of horse. Rothsay agrees to dismiss Ramorny, whom both older men regard as an evil influence over the young prince.
Conachar comes back to Perth briefly when Catharine requests that he give refuge to Father Clement, her confessor, who has been accused of heresy. The Highlander tells her that he is the son of the chief of Clan Quhele and that his real name is Eachin (Hector) MacIan. As he promises protection for Father Clement, he also hints at his love for Catharine.
Ramorny, whose hand was cut off in Perth, plans vengeance on his assailant with Henbane Dwining, an apothecary who is jealous of Henry’s power and influence. Having gained only a mild revenge by spreading the tale of Henry’s association with the itinerant young woman entertainer, he is eager to help Ramorny plot Henry’s assassination. That night, as Shrovetide revelers mill about Perth, Oliver Proudfute, a well-meaning but tactless burgher, assures Simon that Henry is not hiding the young woman; he saw Henry send her to Dundee. Then, fearing that he has made matters worse, Proudfute escapes from a group of taunting masquers and goes to Henry to apologize. Proudfute, who likes to think of himself as a hero but is really a timid soul, avoids the subject of his visit as long as possible. His belated and sheepish confession serves only to deepen Henry’s depression over his relationship with Catharine; Henry orders his friend out, but not until he has granted the burgher’s request that he be allowed to wear Henry’s helmet and jacket to frighten away assailants. Ironically, these garments cause Proudfute’s death: As he walks down the street imitating Henry’s swagger, he is struck down from behind and killed.
Rothsay, who has been among the masquers, goes to find Ramorny to invite him to join the fun. Rothsay is horrified to learn of the loss of Ramorny’s hand, and the prince suspects that Ramorny is planning revenge when he notices the surly murderer Bonthron in the room. Ramorny’s suggestion that they “allow” Albany to die and force King Robert to abdicate shocks Rothsay further. He leaves immediately, vowing to see Ramorny no more and arousing the bitter hatred of his former friend.
The discovery of Proudfute’s body the next morning sets off a rumor that Henry is dead, and Catharine flies disheveled through the streets to see whether he is safe. Henry’s joy at this evidence of her affection is marred by the news of the murder and his realization that he must ignore Catharine’s feelings and declare himself the champion of Proudfute’s widow.
After a brief investigation, the provost suspects that Proudfute’s death was the result of the enmity aroused during the Valentine’s Day encounter between Henry and Ramorny. The council decides to determine the identity of the murderer by using an ancient test, the bier-right, which is based on the superstition that a murdered person’s body bleeds in the presence of the killer. The members of Ramorny’s household are later marched past Proudfute’s body, with no result until Bonthron refuses the test and chooses the alternative, trial by combat. Henry defeats the murderer, who, in his confession, follows the instructions of Ramorny and Dwining and lays the principal blame on Rothsay. Albany immediately puts the prince in the hands of the high constable to protect him and keep him out of further trouble.
Sir Patrick Charteris arrives to tell Simon and Catharine that they are to be arrested for heresy. Simon plans to seek asylum with his old friend, Conachar’s father, in the Highlands; however, knowing his former apprentice’s feelings, he is relieved when the provost offers to take Catharine to Lady Marjory, duchess of Rothsay.
When Simon reaches his destination, he learns that his friend has died, but he is received courteously by the young chief of the clan. Conachar confesses to him that he fears the coming combat with Clan Chattan, and a coward is not a fit leader for a brave clan. He begs Simon to let him marry Catharine, for he feels that her love would strengthen him. Simon refuses to break his word to Henry, however.
Meanwhile, Ramorny has enticed Rothsay to flee to the former residence of his duchess by telling him that Catharine is coming there. When Catharine arrives, thinking Lady Marjory is still there, the prince at first tries to seduce her, but later he gives in to her appeal to his honor. He entrusts her to Louise, the itinerant entertainer he was earlier seen kissing, whom he encountered again by chance.
Ramorny and Dwining starve the prince to death while spreading arumor that he is ill. Louise and Catharine discover what is happening, and Louise escapes to bring Douglas to the rescue while Catharine tries to get food to Rothsay. Douglas arrives in time to force Ramorny’s surrender and to save Catharine’s life, but not in time to save the prince; Dwining poisons himself to avoid his confederate’s fate of death by hanging.
Douglas and Albany decide to keep Rothsay’s death secret until after the clan combat on Palm Sunday. That morning, Henry volunteers to take the place of a missing Chattan warrior and fights valiantly in order to have a chance to meet Conachar, whom he believes is a rival about to wed Catharine. Conachar’s foster father sacrifices his eight sons and himself in an attempt to protect Conachar, but their efforts are useless. When the young leader faces Henry at last, the Highlander flees across the River Tay. Later that day, he goes to Catharine to tell her of his cowardice before he plunges to his death in the river.
Catharine and Henry are married a few months later. Although she is reconciled to her husband’s warring impulses, he vows to take up arms again only in behalf of his country. Their first son has as godparents the earl of Douglas, Lady Marjory, and Sir Patrick Charteris.
King Robert dies soon afterward, brokenhearted by the death of one son and the capture by the English of the other, later James I of Scotland, whom Robert was sending away to protect him from Albany’s power. Albany, acquitted by Parliament of the charge that he was responsible for Rothsay’s death, nevertheless does penance for his guilt. His son, who inherited the regency, pays for his father’s sins on the scaffold when James I comes to the throne years later.
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