“Who are you?” asked Salisbury, “and why has Betsy Hepburn not returned here as she promised? She has been long in sending me a message. I was beginning to think that the lads in the Castle suited her so well that she had forgotten her man in my prison. Zounds, you have come none too early if you desire to save Hepburn’s life. I had almost decided to hang him as a partaker in his wife’s treachery and disobedience. Now that you are here, I hope you can speak to the purpose. Come, time presses; let me know your name and your errand?”
“I am Adam Home, a retainer of the Laird of Wedderburn, but presently acting as one of the warders of the Castle of Dunbar,” replied the Countess, and truly she looked and acted her part to the life. her tall stature, swarthy complexion, noble figure, and gallant bearing, were well set off by the tight breeches, close fitting doublet, and feather bonnet, which she wore in her assumed character.
“So you are one of the Castle warders?” asked Salisbury. “Without doubt a straight and stalwart stripling; but what of Betsy, is she ill that she sends you on this errand?”
“Betsy Hepburn, my Lord, would gladly have come if it had been in her power,” answered the messenger, “but the night ride from Wedderburn, the cold of your damp cell, together with anxiety for her husband’s safety, have completely broken her health and spirits, and she is now stretched on a bed of sickness. I am here as her representative to let you know how she has discharged the duty your required her to fulfil.”
“Say you so,” eagerly exclaimed the Earl. “I hope she has done her work faithfully and well. More than a month has elapsed since I sent the girl to the Castle, and we are as far from gaining an advantage as ever. My catapults seem useless against the massive walls of the fortress, and only a fortnight ago that she devil, Black Agnes, utterly destroyed the sow I sent forward filled with men to undermine the walls, and all the soldiers it contained are either dead or badly wounded. Unless I can speedily secure an entrance my army will melt away under the malign influences of famine, cold, and disease; and, again, Lord Dunbar may be upon is at any time, and my exhausted soldiers could not for an hour successfully withstand the onset of a fresh, and probably numerous, enemy. Know, soldier, that you are welcome as flowers in May if you can show me how I am to secure that troublesome stronghold, the siege of which has already cost me so dearly. The richest rewards shall be yours when the St George’s standard replaces the Lion of Scotland on yonder battlements; but if there is any sign of treachery, then I will take such a vengeance on you and Hepburn as shall make every soul in Scotland tremble at the name of Salisbury. But be faithful and fear not. Do your utmost in my interests, and you shall find that Montague knows how to recognise earnest, honest effort, even though it may not succeed. Speak, then. You say you are one of the Castle warders; are you willing and able to admit me and my men within the walls?”
“Ay,” replied Black Agnes, “I’m wullin’ eneuch, but I maun be paid for ma trouble and risk. I care little for the Scotch cause, and less for the Dunbars and their Castle. I’m only a puir sodger o’ fortune, wi’ nae patrimony but my guid sword, sae when Betsy tauld me what ye desired I said I wad dae yer bidding gin ye paid me a thousand crowns, the same as ye offered Hepburn. I want nae promises, but hauf the siller noo, doun on the nail, and the ither hauf when you get possession o’ the Castle; and Betsy bade me tell ye that the rest o’ her man’s guerdon maun be paid at the same time. It’s lucky for your plan, ma Lord, that I happen tae be ane o’ the warders, for had the lass made sic a proposal to ony o’ the Dunbar retainers Black Agnes wad quickly ha’e heard tell o’t, and it’s nae unlikely but she micht ha’e thrown the traitor ower the rocks intae the sea. But the thing can and will be done, provided we can agree aboot the pey. What say ye, my noble maister?”
“Methinks money will not stand in the way of our purpose,” replied Salisbury. “But truly you Scots are a greedy people, with always a keen eye to the main chance. Yet, by my soul,” angrily continued his Lordship, “two thousand crowns is in good sooth a right noble sum to pay for the possession of a rickle of old stones, even though the beauteous Black Agnes is thrown into the bargain, but needs must when the devil drives. The Castle must be mine, so warder I accept your terms, and pledge my knightly word that the promised guerdon shall be well and truly paid. Before you leave my camp you shall receive the five hundred crowns you ask as earnest money to clench the bargain and secure your willing service. But how, where, and when?” impatiently asked the Earl, “am I to obtain entrance to the fortress? I am growing weary of the business, and the matter may not be much longer delayed.”
“Ye should harry nae man’s cattle,” quaintly answered the disguised Countess. “Ower muckle impatience spoil a’. The mair haste the waur speed, as we say in Scotland. We hae a crafty opponent in the Leddy o’ the Castle, and saw we maun lay our plans wi’ care and caution, and look weel afore we loup. The thing canna be done till Hogmanay nicht, but gin ye pey heed tae the words I speak, and follow the directions I gie, ye will, without fail, be maister o’ the Castle afore the New Year comes in. It has ay been the custom for the garrison and household – they tell me – tae pass the last hour o’ the auld year thegither in the great banqueting ha’ o’ the Castle. Then they act Galatian, tell stories, and sing sangs till the chap o’ twal, when they hae a dram a’ round, wish each ither a happy New Year, and then separate, the nicht guard tae the gates, and the rest o’ the company tae their beds. It’s during that hour ye maun tak’ the fortress. When the rest o’ the folk are taen up wi’ their singin’ and daffin, I’ll slip oot frae the banquetting ha’ and wait for you and your men in the narrow passage atween the Castle and the bastion. Ye maun bring yer soldiers in boats tae the fit o’ the staircase leading frae the sea inlet tae the door I’ll open it quickly and silently and admit the besiegers. The rest is in your ain hands. Ye maun mak’ a rush for the banquetting ha’, and overpower the garrison afore they hae time tae seize their weapons and resist your onset. Tak’ Robbie Hepburn wi’ ye i’ the foremaist boat, and he’ll guide ye safely through the rocky channel, and up tae the staircase door. Abune a’, dinna forget tae bring the rest o’ the siller.
“I like not your plan, good warder,” remarked the English nobleman when the masquerading Countess had finished her statement. “There is much danger that my boats may be dashed to pieces amongst the rocks which lie around the Castle. Why can’t you lower the drawbridge, raise the portcullis, and admit me by the great front gate!”
“Because tae dae sae,” replied his visitor, “is far beyond the strength o’ ae man, and, besides, e’en could I manage to lower the massive drawbridge, the rattling o’ the chains through the pulleys wad certainly be heard in the banquetting ha’, and then the haile hive wad be on ye like a swarm o’ wasps. As for the rocks, ye’ll win through them safe eneuch, gin ye tak’ Robbie for a guide.”
“No doubt that might do provided I could depend on Hepburn’s fidelity, but I care not to put myself and my men in the power of a prisoner whom I have so recently threatened with the gallows. How can you satisfy me that, in order to gratify his spite, he may not lead us all to destruction?” asked Salisbury.
“Surely, my Lord,” smartly retorted Black Agnes, “your ain sound sense maun assure you that Hepburn wad never be sic a fule as tae ensure his ain destruction by leading ye wrang. Gin he led you astray, he wad certainly perish either by the water or the sword. Nae, nae, Robbie’s nae sae daft as tae rin his head again sic a stane wa’ as that, mair especially as he kens that a thousand crowns, nae tae speak o’ a bonnie lassie like Betsy’s waiting for him gin he leads ye safely tae the Castle yett. At onyrate that’s the only plan I can think o’, sae ye maun jist tak’ it or leav ‘t as ye like.”
“So let it be,” reluctantly assented Montague, “as no other device is feasible in the circumstances. But,” muttered he to himself, “I must test the good faith of Hepburn and this stranger. Do you,” he asked the disguised Countess, “know my prisoner well enough to advise him wisely for his good?”
“Oh, ay, I ken him brawly,” replied the Countess. “I dinna belang this countryside as I tauld ye afore, but when Robbie cam’ tae Wedderburn courting Betsy Sinclair we often foregathered and had a crack thegither, and sae he and me got weel acqueent. I’ll be gled eneuch tae gi’e him counsel on ony subject ye may suggest.”
“If that be so,” commanded Salisbury, “you shall visit the prisoner in his cell, and endeavour to impress upon him the necessity of prudently and faithfully discharging the responsible function of guide to our surprise expedition. Point out to your friend that wealth and beauty are the rewards of fidelity and show him, on the other hand, that if he plays me false he shall certainly die the death of a traitor. When you have talked with Hepburn I shall speak with you again. I am disposed to trust you, for you look too simple to deceive, and if you can assure me that Hepburn is prepared to do his part faithfully, and without flinching, then, on Hogmanay night, I shall put the scheme to proof, and bring the enterprise to the issue. Ho! guard, lead this soldier to the Scotsman’s cell.
Salisbury smiled grimly when his visitor had left the room. “Ay,” murmured the Earl, “that lad little knows the ordeal to which he is about to be subjected. Should I have the slightest ground for suspicion he and Hepburn shall be food for the crows before the rising of the morrow’s sun.”