Chapter XV. – Hogmanay in the English Camp.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   The conversation which Salisbury had heard between Hepburn and the messenger who passed for Home in the Judas Cell set all his doubts at rest, and he was now confident that the enterprise would succeed, and accordingly busied himself in preparations for the all important expedition. During the four weeks or so which elapsed between the visit of the disguised Countess to his camp and Hogmanay, he occupied a picked section of his troops in secret arrangements for the treacherous attack on the Castle, boats had to be overhauled, swords sharpened, arrows prepared, and bows tested, in prospect of the perilous midnight raid. 

   The remainder of the English army kept up appearances by regularly continuing to bombard the walls with their catapults ad other engines of mediæval warfare, hoping in this way to draw off the attention of the garrison from the work in which the other section of the troops was engaged. 

   As the Earl well knew the Castle garrison was far from numerous, most of the Dunbar vassals being absent with their Lord, and only about a hundred remained at home to guard the ancient fortress. In these circumstances Salisbury believed that a force of one hundred and fifty men would be amply sufficient to secure his purpose, aided as he was by the treachery of the warder, Home, with the further advantage that the enemy could not anticipate, and would not be prepared for his attack. 

   Thus he reasoned, and, on the assumption – of which he had every assurance – that Home would act up to his promises, he had good grounds for anticipating an easy and complete victory. 

   Salisbury was a firm believer in the doctrine that men work hardest and fight most bravely when they are well fed and comfortably clothed. He did not accept the teaching of the proverb that “hungry men fight best,” and so each member of the expedition was provided – in addition to his ordinary apparel – with a warm cloak of goodly Flemish cloth to wear in the boats as a protection against the keen sea air of the winter’s night. Nor was abundance of prime beef and generous ale lacking, for, before setting out, a bounteous supper was served, and eagerly partaken of by the stout, lusty fellows who followed the Earl’s banner. 

   At last the feast was over, a parting glass had been drained to the success of the enterprise, and about half past ten on Hogmanay night the boats containing Salisbury and the attacking force set out for the Castle from the shore at the east end of Dunbar. 

   Surely the powers which preside over human destiny would not suffer this unholy scheme to succeed, founded, as it was, on the basest temptation and foulest treachery. So might have argued a man of tender conscience and delicate honour, and thus reasoning might have hesitated before proceeding further on a course equally opposed to moral law and knightly faith. But Salisbury had no such scruples. In his view, as in that of many others, the end justified the means. Little did he reck of the foul paths which must be traversed, if only they led to success. What mattered the way, if the end of the journey was the banquetting hall of Dunbar Castle? Perish truth, and faith, and honour; welcome the glittering bauble of military fame!

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