It may appear to those who do not understand the ancient methods of dealing with prisoners that Lord Salisbury was somewhat rash in agreeing to accept a stranger’s assurance of what took place at a private interview between him and a prisoner as a guarantee of the latter’s fidelity. But, as we shall presently see, the noble Lord was not so foolhardy as he seemed. Jailers in these old despotic times had few scruples where the interests of prisoners were concerned. The object of men in power was to obtain the information they desired from their unhappy charges by any means – fair or foul, it mattered little – if only sufficient evidence could be secured to convict the prisoner and implicate his associates who were still at liberty.
In order to gain secret information jailers were accustomed to permit private meetings between prisoners and their friends, because on such occasions the accused often disburdened himself of important information – even in some cases confessed his guilt and laid bare his whole mind to his visitor under the impression that no eye saw his gestures and no ears heard his words, except only those of the person who was with him in the cell.
This was not so, however. The jailers did not hesitate to listen secretly to the most confidential conversations which those in custody might make to relative or friend. Oh, no; all was fair against those who, either rightly or wrongly, had got involved in the tight-fitting meshes of the law.
Accordingly, when Salisbury had dismissed the supposed warder – Home – to visit Hepburn in his cell, he, Earl though he was, went to an adjoining apartment for the purpose of spying on the interview between the friends and secretly listening to their conversation. This he was able to manage easily by means of a Judas slit in the wall separating the room in which he was from the cell occupied by Hepburn. Luckily, however, for the prisoner and his visitor, they were much too knowing and prudent to disclose their real sentiments in such a dangerous situation.
Robbie Hepburn was an old hand at the jailer business himself – indeed, he had formerly been in charge of this very prison in which he was now confined, and was perfectly aware that every word spoken in the cell to which he had been removed could be distinctly heard in the neighbouring apartment.
Forewarned is to be forearmed, and knowing what he did Hepburn was far too cute and cautious to let the cat out of the bag, and so play into the hands of the cunning and relentless Earl, who, he doubted not, would do what he could to catch his prisoner tripping. The young man expected a visit from his wife, and fully believed that he had been placed in the Judas cell in order that their most secret deeds and words might be meanly ascertained through the tell-tale slit.
He had no fear of betraying himself during the critical interview, and he only hoped that Betsy might be equally cautious. It was utterly impossible to give her any warning of danger either by word or look. The slightest gesture or lowest whisper would assuredly be noticed, and might ruin all, his only hope was that Lady Dunbar had told the girl of the listener’s chamber in Dunbar jail. Little did he expect to see the noble Countess herself, and great was his astonishment when the door was thrown open and Black Agnes in the humble guise of a private soldier entered the cell.
This was sufficiently startling to shake the equanimity of most men, but fortunately Robbie was one of those cool, nerveless individuals who are not apt to lose their presence of mind even in the most unexpected circumstances, or in a situation for which no provision could possibly be made.
Like a wise man he simply held his tongue, waiting for her Ladyship to give him his cue. Hepburn had full confidence in the self possession and readiness of resource which were so characteristic of the Countess, and he had no fear that she would say anything which might lead an unseen listener to suppose that a counterplot was in progress for the discomfiture of Salisbury.
Black Agnes, on her part, was fully alive to the absolute necessity for the utmost prudence both in speech and demeanour during this critical interview. The Secret of the Judas Chamber was well known to her, and she determined that not a word should pass during the conversation contradictory of the compact which she had formed with the English leader.
Luckily, Hepburn had at once recognised the lady, notwithstanding her peculiar disguise, and as Black Agnes noted the look of intelligence with which the prisoner greeted her when she entered the cell she knew that the greatest danger had been overcome – the peril namely, that Hepburn, in his surprise, might ignorantly and heedlessly ask, “Who are you?” This would have been utter ruin, as she had told Salisbury that Adam Home and Robert Hepburn were intimate friends of long standing.
The two risks which the gallant lady ran in visiting the English camp were of a directly opposite character. There was a chance that the enemy might penetrate her disguise, and, on the other hand, it was possible that Hepburn, intimately as he was acquainted with her features, might fail to identify the proud Countess in male attire. However, both hazards had been safely passed, and in the conversation which followed the assumed character was well maintained, and all that Salisbury heard pleased him well.
“Ye’ll be disappointed, nae doot, tae see yer auld friend Adam Home in place o’ bonnie Betsy?” queried the Countess.
Instantly Hepburn saw her drift, and answered cleverly to the cue he had received –
“I’m gled eneuch, Adam lad, tae ha’e a crack wi’ sic a gude comrade as you; but eh, man, I’ve been wearyin’ sair for the wife. What for did she no come hersel’? She’s no poorly, I hope?”
“Weel, Robbie,” replied his visitor “the fac’ is she’s gotten a gey sair hoaste. Naething sairious, believe me, but yet bad eneuch tae keep her bedded for a day or twa. It was clean oot o’ the question for her tae come oot on the water the nicht, and, besides, there was nae need for her tae risk her health on this business, as I could manage the maitter fine. I’ve settled wi’ Lord Salisbury tae let him intae the Castle on the last hour o’ the auld year, and it is arranged that ye’re tae guide the boats wi’ the sodgers tae the sea inlet t the fit o’ the staircase leading tae the door in the passage atween the main building and the bastion. Sae mind and dae yer pairt weel, for I’ve vouched tae the Earl for your skill and fidelity. It’ll be a gey bad job for you gin ye mak’ a slip. But if the affair comes aff a’ richt you and me’ll be made men.”
“Ye may rely on me daeing my best tae pilot the boats,” said Hepburn. “I’m no’ sic a fule as tae miss the chance o’ earning a thousand crowns sae easily.”
“A’ richt,” assented the messenger. “Fare ye weel till Hogmanay nicht. Be true tae yer word, and some folk’ll get a gliff, or I’m mistaken. Black Agnes ‘ll be low eneuch afore the New Year comes in.”
“I hope she may, the despotic limmer,” cheerfully echoed Hepburn. “Hurrah for the noble Lord Salisbury. May he aye prosper as weel as I wish him, and capture mony strongholds as easily as he’ll tak’ the Castle o’ Dunbar.”
“Zounds,” muttered Salisbury in the seclusion of the twin Judas chamber, “these warders must be most consummate scoundrels. Hepburn has all his life been a clansman of the Dunbars, he has eaten their bread and fought under their banner, and yet he is actually chuckling over his base treachery in betraying his Lord’s wife and Castle into my hands. As for Home he is little better, even a mercenary soldier is true to the leader to whom he has sold his sword. Did it serve their turn they would without doubt treat me as they have treated Black Agnes. Methinks no Englishman could be guilty of such incredible baseness. Can they be playing me false? No, they dare not, and besides the testimony of the Judas Slit never failed me yet. A look, a gesture, a whisper would have revealed their purpose, did they mean to lead me into a trap. Yes, all is right. I shall dismiss this faithless warder, and bid him have all in readiness for the half hour before twelve on the night of Hogmanay.