Chapter VI. – How it Befel Hepburn and His Bride.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   As Adam Home suggested to Ronald Maxwell, the warder, their friend Robert Hepburn and his newly-made bride had fallen into the hands of the Philistines as they were within an arrow flight almost of the sure refuge to which they were happening. When Hepburn’s horse fell – struck by the sentinel’s shaft – the bride and bridegroom were promptly seized by the soldiers of the guard and immediately hurried before an officer of high rank, who had taken up his quarters in the Townhouse of Dunbar. 

   “Do not trouble me with such carrion at this early morning hour,” snappishly interrupted the officer as the sergeant of the guard led his prisoners into the room where the great man was lying in bed, and asked what was to be done with the unfortunate Scotch couple. “Take them away, I say, and lock them up until after breakfast.” “You had better say your prayers, Scottie – if savages such as you ever do pray – because, let me warn you, that probably you and your wench will stretch a cord before high noon to-day. 

   “Diana be ower sure o’ that, Sir Captain,” boldly answered Hepburn. “We say in this county that shored men live lang, and while there’s life there’s hope. My noble mistress ‘ll maybe pounce upon you and your beer-selling crew afore ye can tak’ my life. Black Agnes ‘ll never let her warder die if she can afford him succour.” 

   “Ah,” answered the officer, “if that’s what you trust in I fear you won’t escape the halter. Black Agnes has enough to do in defending her rocky fortress without running farther risk by sallying out to save your neck. But you are the warder, you say? Well, if you can aid us to take the castle I doubt me not that my Lord of Salisbury will set you free, and bestow upon you, too, a rich guerdon for your service. No; answer me not now, but think on what I have said, and be ready to give a suitable answer when you are summoned before the noble Montague.” 

   When Rob and Betsy found themselves alone in one of these dark, filthy dungeons which served for prison cells in the good old times their hearts were sad enough, in view of their present wretched condition and gloomy prospects. 

   “Wull they hang us, Robbie, think ye?” asked the young girl, creeping up closer to her lover as she spoke, “It’s a terrible job this, lad, tae dee on oor weeding day.” “Ye canna betray yer mistress, but I’m thinking you and me atween us micht bambozzle the rascals and get baith our liberty and the reward.” “It would be grand gin we could manage to pit Montague intae the hands o’ the Countess.” “That would serve him weel for his cruelty tae oor folks and oorsel’s, and gin we carried the project off we would be made for life.” “What think ye o’ that, lad?” 

   “I dinna ken how tae answer ye,” replied Hepburn, “It would be a real fine plan gin it could be managed.” “But I greatly fear me it canna be done.” “Thae Southern loons are gey auld-farraned, and it’s no an easy maitter tae throw dust in their een.” “Salisbury winna likely gie me ma liberty till he tak’s the Castle, but gin he would let you awa’, ye micht get inside the gates, and ance there, tell oor story tae Leddy Dunbar.” “We maun jist hae patience till we hear what his Lordship is wishing us tae dae.” “See now, lassie, had yer wheesht, for though this is a gey hard bed I’ll try and get some sleep, for I’m dead tired after my lang ride tae Wedderburn and back.” 

   Early in the forenoon the prisoners were brought before Lord Salisbury, and Hepburn was then asked in plain terms if he would agree to aid the besiegers in gaining access to the Castle. To this dishonourable proposal the gallant youth returned a prompt and decided refusal. “Na, na,” he said, “ I and my forefaithers ha’e easten the bread o’ the Dunbars for mony generations. We have followed our Lords tae foreign battlefields, and bled and died for them there. We ha’e helped tae guard the auld Castle on the roccks frae a’ its enemies, and it will never be said that, when ye couldnae capture the stronghold by fair force o’ arms, ye secured a mean advantage through the base treachery o’ a Hepburn. We maun a’ dee sometime, and we can only dee anee, and, if ma’ hour has come, I’ll gang afore my Maker as a faithful warder and an honest man. But, for God’s sake, ma Lord, spare the lassie. It doesnae become a brave and noble soldier like you tae war wi’ women.” 

   “Dare you bandy words with me, you hound?” angrily exclaimed Lord Salisbury. “Who are you that would presume to instruct a belted Earl in what belongs to knightly honour and the duty of a soldier?” I give you ten minutes to consider my offer. If you agree to aid me in capturing that fortress you shall have your liberty and a guerdon of a thousand gold crowns the day it falls into my hands. If you persist in declining my clemency, then, when ten short minutes have faded into eternity, you and your wench shall hang together from the Townhouse steeple.” 

   A dead silence followed his Lordship’s words. The soldiers and servants did not dare to utter any protest against their master’s brutal sentence. Hepburn, apparently solemnised by the prospect of immediate death, was praying silently to heaven for that mercy which he did not expect from man. Betsy alone seemed unconcerned – not at all like a person who was on the edge of the drop. It was she who at last broke the oppressive silence. 

   “May I speak, my Lord?” she asked Salisbury, and the great man having nodded assent, she continued – “It’s hard on me tae dee in my youth for the pigheadedness o’ my man.” “Gin ye’ll send us back again tae the cell, I’ll try and get him tae hear reason. I’m tae be hanged, forsooth! for Black Agnes and her rickle o’ auld stanes.” “That’s a likely story indeed!” “What ha’e the Dunbars done for me that my neck should be raxed for their gude?” “And, Rob, ye stupid, donnered coof, what ha’e they done for ye either that ye should dee for them?” “Ye worked hard for a’ ye got, I trow.” “Tak’ yer life and the bonnie gowden crowns, and never mind yer auld mistress.” “I’m thinkin’ she wadna even sell her finger tae save ye frae the gallows.” “Rouse yersel’, lad.” “Be a man, and tak’ his Lordship’s bounteous offer.” 

   “Tempt me not, woman,” angrily replied Hepburn, who seemed to have forgotten all about his wife’s suggested ruse, and apparently believed that she meant him to betray his mistress, though his honest indignation was only a piece of consummate acting after all. “Let me alane, I say.” “Canna a puir lad be allowed tae dee in peace?” “Why wring my heart strings now, when I should be praying to that heavenly Judge, before whom I must so soon appear?” “Had I a thousand lives I would give them gladly to save Dunbar Castle frae the reiving hands o’ the fause Southern.” “I’m sorry for ye, my bonnie wee doo, and I wad save yer life at any cost save that of honour.” “I thought when I married ye that we had mony lang and happy days afore us tae spend thegither.” “But it seems that’s no tae be.” “Sae, dearie, let’s defy them tae their teeth, and die as becomes oor honest Scottish birth and Christian rearing.” 

   “Upon my word,” here interposed Lord Salisbury., “you’re a great fool, Hepburn, to choose death when such a goodly damsel is pleading on you to live.” “I trow me, my knaves would betray me ten times over for a kiss even from such dainty lips.” “Zounds, man, I shan’t hang you just yet.” “I’ll send you back with the girl alone to the cell, and I doubt me not her private caresses will have more effect on you than her public appeal.” “Begone, now, at four by the clock we shall summon you again.” “See that you are then prepared to do our will, otherwise the sentence of death shall, without fail, be executed on you both.” “Or, no,” continued the coarse brute, “the girl is too pretty to hang.” “I shall give her to one of my soldiers, and when you are feeding the ravens she will be dallying with a new husband.” “How like you the prospect, Scottie.” “Methinks that wrings your heart.” “Away with you, and think on your dainty bride sleeping in the arms of one of my stalwart archers.” “Or be wise in time, keep her yourself, and with her receive the rich guerdon I offer.” “Guards, remove the warder and his bride, and lock them up securely till the hour I have named.” “Then bring them again to our presence.”

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