Chapter XVII. – Only Saved by the Sparkle of a Diamond Star.

[Black Agnes Contents]

   No sooner were the boats secured to the iron rings attached to the stone steps of the staircase than Salisbury ordered Hepburn to land and lead the way. The young man of course had no choice but to obey the imperious command. Might is a powerful influence in securing obedience, and so Robbie hastened up the stairs closely followed by Neville with his drawn sword. Then came a score of heavily armed soldiers with Salisbury in the rear. The men in the other boats were directed to follow the Earl, so that he was protected by an armed guard both before and behind. 

   When Hepburn reached the top of the staircase he knocked – as directed – softly at the door leading into the passage, and in an instant his summons was answered. 

   “Who goes there?” asked the voice of Home from the inner side. 

   “Your comrade Hepburn,” was the ready reply, and immediately the wicket in the wall was opened, and Hepburn entered the passage, closely followed by Neville and the soldiers. 

   As soon as Robbie got inside the passage, he saw, much to his satisfaction, that ample preparations had been made to give the midnight visitors a warm reception, for as he turned to proceed to the Castle he noticed that the way was strongly guarded by armed soldiers. 

   This was all very well, but Hepburn could not help feeling rather uneasy in the region of the backbone, knowing as he did that Neville with his naked sword could not be far off. 

   “Where could the Englishman and his soldiers be? What had become of them? If Neville were still at liberty, it was singular that he did not strike.” So thought the pilot, and, taking heart of grace, he looked behind him to ascertain what had become of his guards. 

   They were not to be seen; silently and mysteriously they had disappeared. A group of Dunbar retainers stood in the passage beyond the entrance door, but the English had vanished and left no sign. Clearly the invaders had been effectually mastered, but how had this desirable result been attained so easily, noiselessly, and completely? The mystery was simple enough after all. As Hepburn was anxiously gazing at the doorway, and wondering how the Englishmen were disposed of, another soldier stepped into the passage; instantly a sack was thrown over his head, and he was hustled along the narrow corridor in the direction of the bastion, being rendered by this clever contrivance incapable either of speech or voluntary motion. 

   At this welcome sight the young Scotchman could hardly refrain from audibly expressing his satisfaction, but at a warning gesture from one of the garrison he pulled himself together again, and silently awaited the issue of this remarkable affair. 

   By this time all the soldiers who preceded the Earl had passed into the doorway, and Salisbury was about to follow their example, when he was seized by the collar of his coat of mail by a soldier behind him, and rudely drawn back outside the door, just as he was about to enter the trap which Black Agnes had so carefully prepared for his reception. 

   “Back! back! for God’s sake, come back!” excitedly exclaimed the soldier, who had seized the English leader, “there is treason, the blackest at work, my Lord, for I see the swarthy face of the Countess glowing through that arrow slit beside the door. I am certain it is Black Agnes and no other, for I see a diamond star sparkling in the woman’s jet black hair. To the boats, comrades, to the boats before the Scottish traitors are upon us!” 

   It was all too true, Salisbury had only escaped capture by the skin of his teeth, as he was soon to learn from an unexpected quarter, for as he made the best of his way down the staircase the undaunted Lady of the Castle, speaking from the doorway, bade him adieu – 

   “Farewell, Montague, I intended you should have supped with us. You see now that my warders, though faithless to you, have proved faithful to the wife of their Lord. Do you remember Adam Home, the lad from Wedderburn, who hated the Scotch, loved money, and was willing to do your bidding for a thousand crowns? Hah, the Judas Slit was false for once, and crafty as you are, a woman’s weak wit has proved more than your match.” 

   Salisbury was no dullard, and in an instant he realised how he had been tricked and befooled. He looked up at the speaker as she hurled at him such bitter taunts, and he saw only too plainly that the haughty Countess now, in all the pomp of her rank, and exulting in his disaster, was none other than the smart, slender stripling Adam Home, who had visited the English camp, and by his apparent simplicity and ingenuousness induced the Earl to risk his troops and his personal liberty in this dangerous and disastrous enterprise. 

   After all, neither party was completely successful, though Black Agnes had decidedly the best of the encounter. The Castle was saved, Hepburn had escaped; and, to crown all, John Copeland, pursebearer of the Earl, was one of the prisoners taken, and in his possession were found the gold crowns brought to reward the faithless, though faithful, warders.

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