Chapter XIV. – Hogmanay Night at Dunbar Castle.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   Great was the delight of Home, Maxwell, and the two girls when the Countess returned safely to the Castle, and related how successfully she had outwitted the wary and experienced Earl. 

   “All is well so far,” explained Black Agnes. “Hepburn and I played our parts to admiration in the Judas Cell, and I noticed from Salisbury’s manner when he dismissed me that he had no suspicion of the existence of the counterplot, which, I hope, may ruin his nefarious scheme. Until the hour is at hand, we must keep the secret to ourselves. None of the garrison must learn prematurely anything about the startling drama which is to be played out on Old Year’s night. I trust we may have many strange guests as our first fits on New Year’s morning. At any rate, we will, I think, manage to drive Salisbury away with a flea in his lug, and save the life of my faithful servant, Hepburn. That gallant youth is now freely forgiven for his hasty marriage, in consideration of his sufferings in our cause, and fidelity to my husband’s house. When the siege is raised and the enemy gone, you Home, as well as Hepburn, shall surely find that Black Agnes knows how to reward the friends of her toil, and need, and danger. And, my gallant Maxwell, you shall not be forgotten. Do you envy your comrades the bonnie brides they have won, and wish to follow their example? Ah, you are too modest to admit the soft impeachment. Methinks you dearly love Annie Armstrong, my second tirewoman. You should be bold, man, in courting as you are in war, and I doubt me not that your sweetheart will fall into your arms as readily as Betsy and Elsie yielded themselves to Hepburn and Home. If you gain her promise she shall not come to you a tocherless bride. When my Lord returns, and all is safe, we shall have a seemly wedding and a bounteous feast in this grim old Castle, and then, too, we will drink success and long life to Home and Hepburn and the comely wenches they married so hastily on Hallowe’en.” 

   When the soldiers of the garrison and the servants of the Castle entered the banqueting hall at eleven o’clock on Old Year’s night, they saw at once, from the grave and stern aspect of their mistress, that some imminent danger was apprehended, and some serious work on hand. The warders, too, were in no holiday guise, but equipped as if for the battle field, with helmet and breastplate, sword, dagger, and shield. And, in addition to those ominous signs of impending peril, the astonished guests promptly realised that no preparations were in process for the music, dancing, daffing, and feasting which invariably occupied the last hour of the passing year. 

   What could be the meaning of these altered arrangements? So well had the secret been kept that not one of the garrison or household had the least inkling of the real facts of the case, they had no idea that Salisbury and his men were already on their way to the sea inlet expecting to gain an easy entrance and a speedy surrender of the Castle. But the time had now come when they were to learn that unwelcome guests were expected to grace the supper table of the Countess on that Hogmanay night. 

   In a few words Black Agnes explained the circumstances which had occasioned the suspension of the customary festivities. It was no time for feasting and rejoicing when an enemy was already at the gate. 

   “Go” – said the Countess to the eagerly listening soldiers – “with Home and Maxwell to the narrow passage between the Castle and the bastion. That is the place for brave men, because it is the post of danger. There you must await the arrival of the besiegers, and see that you bear yourselves right gallantly, as bold-hearted Scotsmen and staunch retainers of my husband’s house.”

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