Black Agnes pondered long and anxiously how to derive the greatest advantage from the startling stories she had heard from Betsy Hepburn. Thanks to the faithfulness of Hepburn and his wife, the Castle would incur no risk of capture from Salisbury’s treacherous proposal, for the Countess was now on the alert against surprise as well as against open assault. But the mere safety of her husband’s stronghold would not satisfy the Lady of Dunbar. At all hazards Hepburn must be rescued, and, if possible, Salisbury must be hoist with his own petard, captured in his own toils, caught in the trap he had so cunningly baited to allure and confound her trusty warders.
It was by no means easy to devise a scheme by which those highly desirable objects might be attained. Salisbury was an old and experienced warrior; keen, cautious, suspicious, easily aroused, and implacable in his enmity. Well did the Countess know that if he had the slightest idea that Betsy was playing him false, her husband’s life would be promptly sacrificed. He must be told that the money he had given and the promises he had made were accepted by the warders, and that the Castle would be yielded to him at the most suitable opportunity, but the information must be given in a natural and apparently trustworthy form, and the plan suggested should be free from any danger or difficulties calculated to arouse his suspicions or awaken his distrust. So the Countess, in consultation with Home and Maxwell, had no easy problem to solve in deciding what story she would construct in order to lead the wary Montague on the ice.
Day after day the matter was discussed, and yet the fogs of gloomy November had given place to the frosts of December before the Countess and her advisers were satisfied that they had derived a scheme which offered a fair prospect of securing the English noble and rescuing the unfortunate warder from his perilous position.
Then arose the momentous question – who was to be the messenger from the Castle to the camp of the enemy? Clearly it was impossible that a simple country girl like Betsy Sinclair could be trusted to discharge this difficult and delicate duty, an ordeal which might well try the courage of the bravest soldier and test the skill of the most experienced diplomatist. Nor were Home and Maxwell any better fitted for such a task. True, their courage was undoubted, but their discretion might fail. When a slip of the tongue or a change in countenance might mean ruin, it would be mere madness to depend upon simple unlettered men, who could easily be tripped up nu the adroit questions of such a master of fence as the English Earl.
If either of these warders went as messenger, his contradictions or uneasy looks might entail the discovery of the counterplot, and involve him and Hepburn in sure, swift, and signal punishment. No; the warders could not, any more than Betsy, serve as the deceivers of Salisbury. Who then was to do the errand of the Countess? Must such a goodly plan be abandoned, and Hepburn left to his fate for want of a skilful messenger? So for a time it seemed, but the undaunted and ingenious Lady of the Castle cut this Gordian knot with that courage, determination, and skill which had never failed her during all the trying ordeal of the siege.
“As no one else is available,” she said, addressing the warders, “I will do my own errand, and act as my own messenger. There is peril, I know, to life, perhaps to honour, in the camp of the rude Southerns, but to thwart Salisbury and save my faithful servant I will gladly take the risk, and run the hazard. My courage I can answer for, and methinks my skill will prove more than a match for the snares of the crafty Montague. Do not dispute my will, brave Maxwell and gallant Home. My resolution is taken and my purpose fixed. Duty calls me on this errand, and did I refuse to obey its summons I would be false to my father’s memory and unworthy of my husband’s name. If I fall I shall die as becomes the daughter of the brave Randolph and the niece of the immortal Bruce. Keep up your heart, Betsy; I doubt not you will spend your Hogmanay with the husband you so hastily wedded and so quickly lost.”