Chapter XVI. – The Secret Expedition on its Way to the Castle.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   The distance by sea between the English camp at the east end of Dunbar and the Castle at its northern extremity was short, but the time occupied in the brief voyage was slightly increased from the necessity of proceeding cautiously, in order to avoid the dangerous rocks, which then, as now, lay around Dunbar and its fortress. 

   In the first boat were Salisbury, Hepburn, Jasper Neville – one of the Earl’s most trusted captains – and about a score of soldiers. Seven other boats followed filled with armed men, and it was arranged that the occupants of the leading boats should not disembark until the whole fleet was securely anchored around the foot of the staircase leading to the Castle. From his intimate knowledge of the coast Hepburn had been selected to act as pilot to the expedition, and dire were the warnings he received of the punishment that would inevitably follow any failure on his part, either intentional or accidental. 

   Salisbury had no alternative but to rely on the skill and good faith of Hepburn, because no other member of the expedition was qualified by local knowledge to assume the place assigned to the young Scotsman as guide to the boats. Hepburn as pilot was inevitable, but every precaution was taken to ensure the faithful discharge of his duty, for the English leader did not care to trust too far to the word of a man who had already basely agreed to betray the cause of his ancestral chief. 

   The pilot might, it was true, run the boats on the rocks, but if he did so Salisbury had taken good care that his triumph would be short, for jasper Neville sat beside the prisoner with naked sword in hand, and strict ordered, from his noble master to plunge it into Hepburn’s heart at the slightest sign of treachery; so, after all, the unfortunate warder was in rather a bad way. 

   Indeed, the poor fellow, while he had every reason to rely on the energy and skill of the Countess, as well as on the bravery and devotion of his friends Home, Maxwell, and the other true hearts in the garrison, feared that, though they might possibly succeed in entrapping the Earl, they would not manage to save their old comrade from the avenging sword of the watchful Neville. 

   It was therefore with a heavy heart that our old friend Robbie guided the miniature fleet through the dangerous channels amongst the rocks, and he certainly did not share the joy of the English soldiers when the prow of the leading craft at last grated on the shingle at the foot of the staircase. 

   Now the time had come to test the fidelity of the night visitor to the English camp, and Salisbury was perfectly satisfied that Home would be eager to earn the promised guerdon by betraying his trust. 

   Like many other Englishmen, both before and after his time, this nobleman believed that Scotsmen would do anything for money, no matter how black and dastardly might be the deed they were called upon to perform, but he soon found, to his cost, as many other tempters have done, that with few exceptions Scotsmen have ever been faithful to the hand which feeds them, and willing to shed the last drop of their blood in defence of their hearths and homes. 

   Little dreamt the haughty noble as he leapt from the boat on the shingly beach, his heart elated with the prospect of a sure and signal triumph, that he was about to experience the most disastrous episode of his high-handed and brilliant career. he believed that the coveted fortress was all but in his grasp. The shadow of coming defeat did not cloud his hopes or darken his exulting spirit. No, his vanity and pride and overweening self confidence led him surely and swiftly onwards to well merited discomfiture and signal disgrace. He came to the sea inlet of Dunbar Castle exulting in the near prospect of victory and renown. We shall now see if his confidence was well founded, and if his high expectations were realised.

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