Chapter XI. – The Castle Messenger Arrives at the English Camp.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   Meanwhile Salisbury had been fuming and fretting at the delay, and making things exceedingly unpleasant for his unhappy prisoner. Again and again Hepburn was brought before the Earl, and closely questioned as to the warders, guards, fortifications, and other safeguards of the Castle, and dire was the vengeance threatened should Betsy break her promise, or, from any cause, fail in her mission. 

   At every interview the poor fellow was reminded that his life depended upon his wife’s fidelity, and was brutally warned that if she did not return soon she might find her man dangling from the weather-cock of the Town House steeple. Besides, he was miserably housed, and meagrely fed; so it was with a longing, and as time went on with a sinking heart, that the prisoner tossed on his wretched pallet, wearing his heart out with what seemed vain waiting, for the rescue he feared would never come. 

   In this way things went on in the English Camp, until one dark night in the beginning of December a sentinel posted in the east end of the town hurriedly called out the guard to meet, and, if necessary, give a warm reception to, a boat, which, he believed, was approaching from the direction of the Castle. In an instant the well drilled soldiers stood to their arms, and rapidly, yet silently, marched to the creek where it was expected the occupants of the boat would land. 

   “Crouch down, men,” ordered the officer in command. “Keep silence, and have your weapons handy, then, when the boat touches the shore, spring upon its passengers, and at your peril see that none escape.” 

   Louder and louder grew the sound of the oars, nearer and nearer drew the boat to the shore; the hearts of the waiting soldiers were throbbing, not with fear, but under the influence of that resistless fighting instinct which animates brave men when they know that the time has come to grapple with their foes. Truly as it was ere long to be found – “Muckle whistlin’ for little red land.” 

   The boat soon grated on the shingly beach. With a shout of defiance the soldiers sprang to their feet, ready and eager for the fray, but only to retreat again as quickly as they had advanced when they discovered that the object of all this elaborate preparation and manly valour was merely a slender, storm-stained stripling, inoffensive and unarmed, in place of the hardy Dunbar retainers they had expected to meet. 

   “How now, fellow?” asked the officer of the guard, seizing the new comer rather roughly by the collar of his doublet, as he angrily questioned him. “How now, I say? What brings you here without our Lord’s permission?” 

   “I come,” replied the stranger, “with a message from Betsy Hepburn to Lord Salisbury, and it will be at your peril if you hesitate to conduct me to your master. My errand is pressing and my business important, and if you lay a hand on me or impede me in the discharge of my mission you will only rue it ance, and that ‘ll be a’ your days.” 

   “I know not what to say or do in the matter,” answered the officer. “My master is not one to trifle with. Know you that if I take you before the chief, and you fail to satisfy him as to the purpose of your visit to the camp, he will instantly and without fail order you to be hanged as a spy. Besides, if I weakly grant your request, he may punish me for my folly.” 

   “Fear not,” persisted the messenger. “Tell the Earl that I come from the Castle with news that will please him well. You’ll find that his Lordship will welcome me gladly, and declare that a sicht o’ me’s gude for sair een. I’m nae spy, but a hater o’ the Scotch and a friend o’ the English, come here at great risk to advance your master’s plans. Salisbury will honour and reward the man who receives me well and leads me to his presence.” 

   “Hold! hold! enough, and more than enough,” interrupted the officer. “If you really have a message for my Lord I dare not place any barrier in the way of your discharge of such a duty. But remember that in this camp we have a long rope, and a short shrift for traitors.” 

   In view of such a threat our heroine needed all the dauntless courage of her gallant race to enable her to meet the ruthless Earl with that clearness of mind and steadiness of nerve which were indispensably requisite for success. She literally carried her life in her hand when she entered the presence chamber of her implacable foe.

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