Tales from Scottish Ballads
The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:
Black Agnace of Dunbar
It was in the year 1338, when Bruce's son was but a bairn, and Scotland was guided by a Regent, that we were left, a household of women, as it were, to guard my lord's strong Castle of Dunbar.
My lord himself, Cospatrick, Earl of Dunbar and March, had ridden off to join the Regent, Sir Andrew Moray, and help him to drive the English out of the land. For the English King, Edward III., thought it no shame to war with bairns, and since he had been joined by that false loon, Edward Baliol, he had succeeded in taking many of our Scottish fortresses, including Edinburgh Castle, and in planting an English army in our midst.
Now the Castle of Dunbar, as all folk know, is a strong Castle, standing as it doth well out to sea, on a mass of solid rock, and connected with the mainland only by one narrow strip of land, which is defended by a drawbridge and portcullis, and walls of solid masonry. Its other sides need no defence, for the wild waters of the Northern Sea beat about them with such fury that it is only at certain times of the tide that even peaceful boatmen can find a safe landing. Indeed, 'tis one of the strongest fortresses in the country, and because of its position, lying not so far from the East Border, and being guard as it were to the Lothians, and Edinburgh, it is often called "The Key of Scotland."
My lord deemed it impregnable, as long as it was well supplied with food, so he had little scruple in leaving his young wife and her two little daughters alone there, with a handful of men-at-arms, too old, most of them, to be of any further service in the field, to guard them.
She, on her part, was very well content to stay, for was she not a daughter of the famous Randolph, and did she not claim kinship with Bruce himself? So fear to her was a thing unknown.
I, who was a woman of fifty then, and am well-nigh ninety now, can truly say that in all the course of a long life, I never saw courage like to hers.
I remember, as though it were yesterday, that cold January morning when my lord set off to the Burgh Muir, where he was to meet with the Regent. When all was ready, and his men were mounted and drawn up, waiting for their master, my lady stepped forth joyously, in the sight of them all, and buckled on her husband's armour.
"Ride forth and do battle for thy country and thine infant King, poor babe," she said, "and vex not thy heart for us who are left behind. We deserve not the name we bear, if we cannot hold the Castle till thy return, even though it were against King Edward himself. Thinkest thou not so, Marian?" and she turned round to where I was standing, a few paces back, with little Mistress Marjory clinging to my skirts, and little Mistress Jean in my arms.
For though I was but her bower-woman, I was of the same clan as my lady, and had served in her family all my life. I had carried her in my arms as I now carried her little daughter, and, at her marriage, I had come with her to her husband's home.
"Indeed, Madam, I trow we can, God and the Saints helping us," I answered, and at her brave words the soldiers raised a great cheer, and my lord, who was usually a stern man, and slow to show his feelings, put his arm round her and kissed her on the lips.
"Spoken like my own true wife," he said. "But in good troth, Sweetheart, methinks there is nothing to fear. For very shame neither King Edward nor his Captains will war against a woman, and, e'en if they do, if thou but keep the gates locked, and the portcullis down, I defy any one of them to gain admittance. And, look ye, the well in the courtyard will never run dry--'tis sunk in the solid rock--and besides the beeves that were salted down at Martinmas, and the meal that was laid in at the end of harvest, there are bags of grain hidden down in the dungeons, enough to feed a score of men for three months at least."
So saying, he leaped into his saddle, and rode out of the gateway, a gallant figure at the head of his troop of armed men, while we climbed to the top of the tower, and stood beside old Andrew, the watchman, and gazed after them until the last glint of their armour disappeared behind a rising hill.
After their departure all went well for a time. Indeed, it was as though the years had flown back, and my lady was once more a girl, so light-hearted and joyous was she, pleased with the novelty of being left governor of that great Castle. It seemed but a bit of play when, after ordering the house and setting the maidens to their tasks, she went round the walls with Walter Brand, a lame archer, who was gently born, and whom she had put in charge of our little fighting force, to see that all the men were at their posts.
And mere play it seemed to her still, when, some two weeks after my lord's departure, as she was sitting sewing in her little chamber, whose windows looked straight out over the sea, and I was rocking Mistress Jean's cradle, and humming a lullaby, little Mistress Marjory, who was five years old, and stirring for her age, came running down from the watch-tower, where she had been with old Andrew, and cried out that a great host of men on horseback were coming, and that old Andrew said that it was the English.
We were laughing at the bairn's story, and wondering who the strangers could be, when old Andrew himself appeared, a look of concern on his usually jocund face.
"Oh, my lady," he cried, "there be a body of armed men moving towards the Castle, led by a knight in splendid armour. A squire rides in front of him, carrying his banner; but the device is unknown to me, and I fear me it was never wrought by Scottish hands."
"Ah ha," laughed the Countess, rising and throwing away her tapestry. "Thou scentest an Englishman, dost thou, Andrew? Mayhap thy thoughts have run on them so much of late, that the habit hath dimmed thine eyes."
"Nay, nay, my lady," stammered old Andrew, half hurt by her gentle raillery, "mine een are keen enough as yet, although my limbs be old."
"'Tis but my sport, Andrew," she answered kindly. "I have always loved a jest, and I have no wish to grow old and grave before my time, even if I have the care of a whole Castle on my shoulders. But hark, there be the stranger's trumpets sounding before the gate. See to it that Walter Brand listens to his message, and answers it as befits the dignity of our house: and thou, do thou mount to thy watch-tower, and keep a good lookout on all that passes."
We waited in silence for some little space; we could hear the sound of voices, but no distinct words reached us.
At last Walter Brand came halting to the door and knocked. Like old Andrew, he wore an anxious look. He was devoted to the Countess, and was aye wont to be timorous where she was concerned.
"'Tis the English Earl of Salisbury," he said, "who desires to speak with your Grace. I asked him to entrust his message to me, and I would deliver it, but he gave answer haughtily, that he would speak with no one but the Countess."
"Then speak with me he shall," said my lady, with a flash of her eye, "but he must e'en bring himself to catch my words as they drop like pearls from the top of the tower. Summon the archers, Walter, and let them stand behind me for a bodyguard: no man need know how old and frail they be, if they are high enough up, and keep somewhat in the background. And thou, Marian, attend me, for 'tis not fitting that the Countess of Dunbar and March should speak with a strange knight in her husband's absence, without a bower-woman standing by."
Casting her wimple round her, she ascended the steep stone stairs, and, as we followed, Walter Brand put his head close to mine. "I like it not," he said in his sober way, "for this Earl of Salisbury is a bold, brazen-faced fellow, and to my ears his voice rings not true. I fear me, he wishes no good to our lady. They say, moreover, that he is one of the best Captains that the King of England hath, and he hath at least two hundred men with him."
"Trust my lady to look after her own, and her husband's honour," I said sharply, for, good man though he was, Walter Brand aye angered me; he seemed ever over-anxious, a character I love not in a man.
All the same my heart sank, as we stepped out on the flat roof of the tower, and glanced down over the battlements.
I saw at once that Walter had spoken truly. Montague, Earl of Salisbury, had a bold, bad face, and his words, though honeyed and low, had a false ring in them.
"My humblest greetings, fair lady," he cried; "my life is at thy service, for I heard but yesterday that thy lord, caitiff that he be, hath left thee alone among rough men, in this lonely wind-swept Castle. Methinks thou art accustomed to kinder treatment and therefore am I come to beg thee to open thy gates, and allow me to enter. By my soul, if thou wilt, I shall be thy servant to the death. Such beauty as thine was never meant to be wasted in the desert. Let me enter, and be thy friend, and I will deck thee with such jewels,--with gold and with pearls, that thou shalt be envied of all the ladies in Christendom."
My lady drew herself up proudly; but even yet she thought it was some sport, albeit not the sport that should have been offered to a noble dame in her husband's absence.
"Little care I for gold, or yet for pearls, my Lord of Salisbury," she said in grave displeasure. "I have jewels enough and to spare, and need not that a stranger should give them to me. As for the gates, I am a loyal wife, and I open them to no one until my good lord return."
Now, had my Lord of Salisbury been a true knight, or even a plain, honest, leal soldier, this answer of my lady's would have sufficed, and he would have parleyed no more, but would have departed, taking his men with him. But, villain that he was, his honeyed words rose up once more in answer.
"Oh, lady bright, oh, lady fair," he cried, "I pray thee have mercy on thy humble servant, and open thy gates and speak with him. Thou art far too beautiful to live in these cold Northern climes, among rough and brutal men. Come with me, and I will dress thee in cloth-of-gold, and take thee along with me to London. King Edward will welcome thee, for thy beauty will add lustre to his court, and we shall be married with all speed. I warrant the Countess of Salisbury will be a person of importance at the English court, and thou shalt have a retinue such as in this barren country ye little dream of. Thou shalt have both lords and knights to ride in thy train, and twenty little page boys to serve thee on bended knee; and hawks, and hounds, and horses galore, so thou wouldst join in the chase. Think of it, lady, and consider not thy rough and unkind lord. If he had loved thee in the least, would he have left thee in my power?"
Now the English lord's words were sweet, and he spoke in the soft Southern tongue, such as might wile a bird from the lift [sky], if the bird chanced to have little sense, and when he ceased I glanced at my lady in alarm, lest for a moment she were tempted.
Heaven forgive me for the thought.
She had drawn herself up to her full height, and her face of righteous anger might have frightened the Evil One himself; and, by my Faith, I am not so very sure that it was not the Evil One who spoke by the mouth of my Lord of Salisbury.
The Countess was very stately, and of wondrous beauty. "Black Agnace," the common folk were wont to call her, because of her raven hair and jet black eyes. Verily at that moment these eyes of hers burned like stars of fire.
"Now shame upon thee, Montague, Earl of Salisbury," she cried, and because of her indignation her voice rang out clear as a trumpet. "Open my gates to thee, forsooth! go to London with thee, and be married to thee there, and bear thy name, and ride in the chase with thy horses and hounds, as if I were thy lawful Countess. Shame on thee, I say. I trow thou callest thyself a belted Earl, and a Christian Knight, and thou comest to me, the wife of a belted Earl--who, thank God, is also a Christian Knight, and a good man and true, moreover, which is more than thou art--with words like these. Yea," and she drew a dainty little glove from her girdle, and threw it down at the Earl's feet, "I cry thrice shame on thee, and here I fling defiance in thy face. Keep thy cloth-of-gold for thine own knights' backs; and as for thy squires and pages, if thou hast so many of them, give them each a sword, and set them on a horse, and bring them here to swell thy company. Bring them here, I say, and let them try to batter down these walls, for in no other way wilt thou ever set foot in Dunbar Castle."
A subdued murmur, as if of applause, ran through the ranks of the armed men, who stood drawn up in a body behind the English Earl. For men love bravery wherever they chance to meet it, and I trow we must have seemed to them but a feeble company to take upon us the defence of the Castle, and to throw defiance in the teeth of their lord.
But the bravery of the Countess did not seem to strike their leader; possibly he was not accustomed to receive such answers from the lips of women. His face flushed an angry red as his squire picked up my lady's little white glove and handed it to him.
"Now, by my soul, Madam," he cried, "thou shalt find that it is no light matter to jeer at armed men. I have come to thee with all courtesy, asking thee to open thy Castle gates, and thou hast flouted me to my face. Well, so be it. When next I come, 'twill be with other words, and other weapons. Mayhap thou wilt be more eager to treat with me then."
"Bring what thou wilt, and come when thou wilt," answered my lady passionately, "thou shalt ever find the same answer waiting thee. These gates of mine open to no one save my own true lord."
With a low mocking bow the Earl turned his horse's head to the South, and galloped away, followed by his men.
We stood on the top of the tower and watched them, I, with a heart full of anxious thoughts for the time that was coming, my lady with her head held high, and her eyes flaming, while the men stood apart and whispered among themselves. For we all knew that, although the English had taken themselves off, it was only for a time, and that they would return without fail.
When the last horseman had disappeared among the belt of trees which lay between us and the Lammermuirs, my lady turned round, her bonnie face all soft and quivering.
"Will ye stand by me, my men?" she asked.
"That will we, till the death, my lady," answered they, and one after another they knelt at her feet and kissed her hand, while, as for me, I could but take her in my arms, as I had done oft-times when she was a little child, and pray God to strengthen her noble heart.
Her emotion passed as quickly as it had come, however, and in a moment she was herself again, laughing and merry as if it had all been a game of play.
"Come down, Walter; come down, my men," she cried; "we must e'en hold a council of war, and lay our plans; while old Andrew will keep watch for us, and tell us when the black-faced knave is like to return."
And when we went downstairs into the great hall, and found that the silly wenches had heard all that had passed, and were bemoaning themselves for lost, and frightening little Mistress Marjory and Mistress Jean well-nigh out of their senses, I warrant she did not spare them, but called them a pack of chicken-hearted, thin-blooded baggages, and threatened that if they did not hold their tongues, and turn to their duties at once, she would send them packing, and then they would be at the mercy of the English in good earnest.
After that we set to work and made such preparations as we could. We set the wenches to draw water from the well, and to bake a good store of bannocks to be ready in time of need, for the men must not be hungry when they fought. Walter Brand and two of the strongest men-at-arms set to work to strengthen the gates, by laying ponderous billets of wood against them, and clasping these in their places by strong iron bars; while the rest, led by old Andrew, went round the Castle, looking to the loopholes, and the battlements, and examining the cross-bows and other weapons.
Upstairs and downstairs went my lady, overlooking everything, thinking of everything, as became a daughter of the great Randolph, while I sat and kept the bairns, who, poor little lassies, were puzzled to know what all the stir and din was about.
And indeed it was none too soon to look to all these things, for although the country seemed quiet enough through the hours of that short afternoon, when night fell, and I was putting the bairns to bed, my lady helping me--for, when one bears a troubled heart (and her heart must have been troubled, in spite of her cheerful face), it aye seems lighter when the hands are full--a little page came running in to tell us that there were lights flickering to Southward among the trees.
"Now hold thy silly tongue, laddie," said I, for I was anxious that we should at least get one good night's rest before the storm and stress of war came upon us.
My lady looked up with a smile from where she was kneeling beside Mistress Jean's cradle. "Let him be, Marian," she said; "the lad meant it well, and 'tis good to know how the danger threatens. Come, we will go up and watch with old Andrew."
So, as soon as the bairns were asleep, we threw plaids over our heads, and crept up the narrow stairs to where old Andrew was watching in his own little tower, which stood out from the great tower like a corbie's [crow’s] nest, and, crouching down behind the battlements to gain some shelter from the cruel wind, we watched the flickering lights coming nearer and nearer from the Southward, and listened to the shouting of men, and the tramp of horses' hoofs, which we could hear at times coming faintly through the storm.
For two long hours we waited, and then, as we could only guess what was taking place, it being far too dark to see, we crept down the narrow stairs again, stiff and chilled, and threw ourselves, all dressed as we were, on our beds.
The gray winter dawn of next morning showed us that the English Earl meant to do his best to reduce our fortress in good earnest, for a small army of men had been brought up in the night, from Berwick most likely, and they were encamped on a strip of greensward facing the Castle. They must have spent a busy night, for already the tents had been pitched, and fires lit, and the men were now engaged in cooking their breakfast, and attending to their horses. At the sight my heart grew heavier and heavier; but my lady's spirits seemed to rise.
"'Tis a brave sight, is it not, Marian?" she said. "In good troth, my Lord of Salisbury does us too much honour, in setting a camp down at our gates, to amuse us in our loneliness. Methinks that is his own tent, there on the right, with the pennon floating in front of it; and there are the mangonells behind," and she pointed to a row of strange-looking machines, which were drawn up on a hill a little way to the rear. "Well, 'tis a stony coast; his lordship will have no trouble in finding stones to load them with."
"What be they, madam?" I asked, for in all my life I had never seen such things before.
My lady laughed as she turned her head to greet Walter Brand, who came up the stairs at that moment.
"Welcome, Walter," she said merrily. "We are just taking the measure of our foes, and here is Marian, who has never seen mangonells before, wondering what they are. They are engines for shooting stones with, Marian; for well the knaves know that arrows are but poor weapons with which to batter stone walls. But see, the fray begins, for yonder are the archers approaching, and yonder go the men down to the sea-shore to gather stones for the mangonells. Thou and I must e'en go down and leave the men to brave the storm. See to it, Walter, that they do not expose themselves unduly; we could ill afford to lose one of them."
Then began the weary onslaught which lasted for so many weeks. In good faith it seems to me that, had we known, when that first rush of arrows sounded through the air, how long it would be ere we were quiet again, we scarce would have had the courage to go on. And when those infernal engines were set off, and their volleys of stones and jagged pieces of iron sounded round our ears, the poor silly wenches lost their heads, and screamed aloud, while the bairns clung to my skirts, and hid their chubby faces in the folds.
But even then my lady was not daunted. Snatching up a napkin, she ran lightly up the stairs, and before anyone could stop her, she stepped forward to the battlements, and there, all unheeding of the danger in which she stood from the arrows of the enemy, she wiped the fragments of stone, and bits of loose mortar daintily from the walls, as if to show my Lord of Salisbury how little our Castle could be harmed by all the stones he liked to hurl against it.
It was bravely done, and again a murmur of admiration went through the English ranks; and--for I was peeping through a loophole--I trow that even the haughty Earl's face softened at the sight of her.
The story of that first day is but the story of many more days that followed. Showers of arrows flew from the cross-bows, volleys of stones fell from the mangonells, until we got so used to the sound of them, that by the third week the veriest coward among the maidens would go boldly up and wipe the dust away where a stone had been chipped, or another displaced, as calmly as our lady herself had done on that first terrible morning.
Their archers did little harm, for our men were so few, and our places of shelter so many, that they ran small risk of being hurt, and although one or two poor fellows were killed, and half a dozen more had wounds, it was nothing to be compared with the loss which the English suffered, for our archers had the whole army to take aim at, and I wot their shafts flew sure.
In vain they brought battering-rams and tried to batter down the doors. Our portcullis had resisted many an onslaught, and the gates behind it were made of oak a foot thick, and studded all over with iron nails, and they might as well have thought to batter down the Bass Rock itself.
So, in spite of all, as the weeks went by, we began to feel fairly safe and comfortable, although my lady never relaxed her vigilance, and went her round of the walls, early and late. At Walter's request she began to wear a morion on her head, and a breast-plate of fine steel, to protect her against any stray arrow, and in them, to my mind, she looked bonnier than ever. In good sooth, I think the very English soldiers loved her, not to speak of our own men; for whenever she appeared they would raise their caps as if in homage, and hum a couplet which ran in some wise thus--
as if they would praise her for her tireless watchfulness. One day, Earl Montague himself, moved to admiration by the manner in which Walter Brand had sent his shaft through the heart of an English knight, cried out in the hearing of all his army, "There comes one of my lady's tire-pins; Agnace's love-shafts go straight to the heart." At which words all our men broke into a mighty shout, and cheered, and cheered again, till the walls rang, and the echoes floated back from far out over the sea.
In spite of their admiration at our lady's bravery, however, the English were determined to conquer the Castle, and after a time, when they saw that their battering-rams and mangonells availed little, they bethought them of a more dangerous weapon of warfare.
It was somewhere towards the end of February, when one fine day a mighty sound of hammering arose from the midst of their camp.
"What are they doing now, think ye, Walter?" asked my lady lightly. "Is it possible that they look for so long a siege that they are beginning to build houses for themselves? Truly they are wise, for if my Lord of Salisbury means to stay there until I open my gates to him, he will grow weary of braving these harsh East winds in no better shelter than a tent."
But for once Walter Brand had no answering smile to give her.
"I fear me 'tis a sow that they are making," he said, "and if that be so we had need to look to our arms."
"A sow," repeated the Countess in graver tones. "I have oft heard of such machines, but I never saw one. Thy words hint of danger, Walter. Is a sow then so deadly that our walls cannot resist its onslaught?"
"It is deadly because it brings the enemy nearer us, my lady," answered Walter. "Hitherto our walls have been our shelter; without them we could not stand a moment, for we are outnumbered by the English a score of times over. These sows, as men name them, are great wooden buildings, which can hold at least forty men inside, and with a platform above where other thirty can stand. They be mounted on two great wheels, and can be run close up to the walls, and as they are oft as high as a house, 'twill be an easy matter for the men who stand on the platform to set up ladders and scale our walls, and after that what chance will there be for our poor handful of men? 'Tis not for myself I fear," he went on, "nor yet for the men. We are soldiers and we can face death; but if thou wouldst not fall into the hands of this English Earl, my lady, I would advise that thou, and Marian, and little Mistress Marjory and Mistress Jean, should set out in the boat the first dark night, when it is calm. 'Tis but ten miles to the Bass, and thou couldst aye find shelter there."
Thus spake honest Walter, who was, as I have said, ever timorous where my lady was concerned; but at his words she shook her head.
"And leave the Castle, Walter?" she said. "That will I never do till I open its doors to my own true lord. As for this English Earl and his sows--tush! I care not for them. If they have wood we have rock, my lad, and I warrant 'twill be a right strong sow that will stand upright after a lump of Dunbar rock comes crashing down on its back; so keep up thy courage, and get out the picks and crowbars. If they build sows by day, we can quarry stones by night."
So saying, my lady shook her little white fist, by way of defiance, in the direction of the tents which studded the greensward opposite, while Walter went off to do her bidding, muttering to himself that the famous Randolph himself was not better than she, for she had been born with the courage of Bruce, and the wisdom of Solomon.
So it came about, that, while the English gave over wasting arrows for a time, and turned their attention to the building of two great clumsy wooden structures, we would steal down in a body on dark nights to the little postern that opened on the shore, when the waves were dashing against the rocks, and making enough noise to deaden the sound of the picks, and while we women held a lanthorn or two, the men worked with might and main, hewing at the solid rock which stretched out to seaward for a few yards at the foot of the Castle wall. Then, when some huge block was loosened, ropes would be lowered, and with much ado, for our numbers were small, the unwieldy mass would be hoisted up, and placed in position on the top of the Castle, hidden, it is true, behind the battlements, but with the stones in front of it displaced, so that it could be rolled over with ease at a given signal.
We all took a turn at the ropes, and our hands were often raw and frayed with the work. 'Twas my lady who suffered most, for her skin was fine, and up till now she had never known what such labour meant.
At last the day came when the English mounted their great white sows on wheels, and filled them with armed men, and loaded the roofs of them with broad-shouldered, strapping fellows, who carried ladders and irons with which to scale our walls. When all was ready the mighty machines began to move forward, pushed by scores of willing arms, while we watched them in silence.
My lady and I were hidden in old Andrew's tower, for no word that Walter Brand could say could persuade her to go down beside Mistress Marjory, and Mistress Jean, and the serving wenches.
Instead of shooting, our archers stood motionless, stationed in groups behind the great boulders of rock, ready for Walter's signal.
On came the sows, until we could look down and see the men they carried, with upturned faces, and hands busy with the ladders they were raising to place against the walls. They were trundled over the narrow strip of land which connected us with the mainland, and stood still at last, close to our very gates.
"Now, lads," shouted Walter, and before a single ladder could be placed, our great blocks of rock went crashing down on them, hurling the top men in all directions, and driving in the wooden roofs on those who were inside.
Woe's me! Although they were our enemies, our hearts melted at the sight. The timbers of the sows cracked and fell in, and we could see nought but a mass of mangled, bleeding wretches. Had it not been that my lady feared treachery, and that she had sworn not to open the gates except to her husband, I ween she would fain have taken us all out to succour them.
As it was, we could only watch and pity, and keep the bairns in the chambers that looked on the sea, so that their young eyes should not gaze on so ghastly a scene.
And when night fell, and there was no light to guide our archers to shoot, though I trust that, in any case, mercy would have kept them from it, the English stole across the causeway, and pulled away the broken beams, and carried off the dead and wounded, and burned what remained of the sows.
After that day we had no more trouble from any attempts to storm the Castle.
But what force cannot do, hunger may. So my Lord of Salisbury, still sitting in front of our gates with his army, in order to prevent help reaching us from the land, set about starving us into submission. As yet we had had no need to trouble about food, for, as I have said, we had a store of grain, enough to last for some weeks yet, in the dungeon, and, long ere it was done, we looked for help reaching us by the sea, if it could not reach us by land.
It was soon made plain to us, however, that not only my Lord of Salisbury, but his royal master, King Edward, was determined that the "Key of Scotland" should fall into his hand, for one fine March morning a great fleet of ships came sailing round St Abb's Head, and took up their station betwixt us and the Bass Rock, and then we were left, without hope of succour, until our stock of provisions should be eaten up, and starvation forced us to give in.
Ah me! but it was weary work, living through the ever-lengthening days of that cold bleak springtime, waiting for the help which never came, which never could come, so it seemed to us, with that army watching us from the land, and that fleet of ships girding us in on the sea.
And all the time our store of food sank lower and lower, and the wenches' faces grew white, and the men pulled their belts tighter round their middles, and poor little Mistress Jean would turn wearily away from the water gruel which was all we had to give her, and moan and cry for the white bread and the milk to which she was accustomed. Mistress Marjory, on the other hand, being five years old, and wise for her years, never complained, though oft-times she would let the spoon fall into her porringer at supper-time, and, laying her head against my sleeve, would say in a wistful little voice that went to my very heart, "I cannot eat it, Marian; I am not hungry to-night."
As for my lady, she went about in those days in silence, with a stern, set face. It must have seemed to her that when the meal was all gone she must needs give in, for she could not see her children die before her eyes.
But Providence is aye ready to help those who help themselves, and, late one evening, towards the latter end of May, when we had held the castle for five long months, I chanced to be sitting alone in my chamber, when the Countess entered, looking very pale and wan.
"Wrap a plaid round thee, and come to the top of the tower, Marian," she said. "I cannot sleep, and I long for a breath of fresh air. It doth me no good to go up there by day, for I can see nothing but these English soldiers in front, and these English ships behind. But by night it is different. It is dark then, and I forget for a time how closely beset we are, and how few handfuls of meal there are in the girnels [meal-barrels]. I will tell thee, Marian," and here her voice sank to a whisper, "what as yet only myself and Walter Brand know, that if help doth not come within a week, we must either open our gates, or starve like rats in a hole."
"But a week is aye a week," I said soothingly, for I was frightened at the wildness of her look, "and help may come before it passes."
All the same my heart was heavy within me as I threw a wrap round my head, and followed her up the narrow stone stairs, and out on to the flat roof of the tower.
The footing was bad in the darkness, for although the battlements had been built up again since the day that we destroyed the sows, there were stones and pieces of rock lying about in all directions, and not being so young and light of foot as I once had been, I stumbled and fell.
"Do not stir till I get a light," cried my lady; "it is dangerous up here in the dark, and a twisted ankle would not mend matters."
She felt her way over to Andrew's watch-tower, and the old man lighted his lanthorn for her, and she came quickly back again, holding it low in case the enemy should see it, and send a few arrows in our direction. By its light I raised myself, and we went across to the northern turret, which looked straight over to the Bass Rock, and stood there, resting our arms on the wall.
Suddenly a speck of light shone out far ahead in the darkness. It flickered for a second and then disappeared. In a moment or two it appeared again, and then disappeared in the same way. I drew my lady's attention to it.
"'Tis a light from the Bass," she said in an excited whisper. "Someone is signalling. It can hardly be to the English, for the Rock is held by friends. Is it possible they can have seen our lanthorn? Let us try again. The English loons are likely to be asleep by now; they have had little to disturb their rest for some weeks back, and may well have grown lazy."
Cautiously she raised the lanthorn, and flashed its rays, once, twice, thrice over the waves. It was only for a second, but it was enough. The spark of light appeared three times in answer, and then all was dark again.
"Run and tell Walter," whispered my lady, and her very voice had changed. It was once more full of life and hope. The Bass Rock was but ten miles off, and if there were friends there watching us, and doubtless making plans to help us, was not that enough?
When Walter came we tried our test for the fourth time, and the answer came back as before.
"We must watch the sea, my lady," he said, when we were safely down in the great hall again. "Help will only come that way, and it will come in the dark. Heaven send that the English sailors have not seen what we have, and keep a double watch in consequence."
After that, we hardly slept. Night after night, we strained our eyes through the darkness in the direction of the Bass, and for five nights our watching was in vain.
But on the sixth, a Sunday, just on the stroke of twelve, the silence which had lasted so long was broken by the sound of shouting, and lights sprang up all round us, first on the ships and then on the land.
With anxious hearts we crowded round the loopholes, for we knew that somewhere, out among the lights, brave men were making a dash for our rescue, and we women, who could do nothing else, lifted up our hearts, and prayed that Heaven and the Holy St Michael would aid their efforts.
Meanwhile, the men manned the walls, ready to shoot if the English ships came within bow-shot, which they were scarce likely to do, as the coast was wild and rocky, and fraught with danger to those who were unacquainted with it.
Presently Walter called for wood to make a fire outside the little postern which opened on the rocks, and we ceased our prayers, and fell to work with a will, with the kitchen-wenches' choppers, on the empty barrels which were piled up in a corner of a cellar. We even drained our last flagon of oil to pour over them, and soon a fire was blazing on the rudely-cut-out landing-stage, and throwing its beams far out over the sea.
And there, dim and shadowy at first, but aye coming nearer and nearer, guided by its light, we saw a boat, not cut in any foreign fashion, but built and rigged near St Margaret's Hope. It was full of men; we could hear them cheering and shouting in our own good Scots tongue, which fell kindly on our ears after the soft mincing English which had been thrown at our heads for so many months.
They were safe now, for, as I have said, the ships through which they had slipped dare not follow them too near the coast, in case they ran upon the rocks, and the Castle sheltered them from any arrows which might be sent from the land. It sheltered us too, and we crowded down to the little landing-stage, and watched with breathless interest the boat which was bringing safety and succour to us.
"Bring down the bairns, Marian," said my lady. "Marjory at least is of an age to remember this."
I hastened to do her bidding, and, calling one of the wenches, we ran up and roused the sleeping lambs, telling them stories of the wonderful boat which was coming over the sea, bringing them nice things to eat once more; for, poor babes, the lack of dainty fare had been the hardest part of all the siege for them.
We had hardly got downstairs again, when the boat ran close up to our roughly constructed landing-stage, which was little more than a ledge of rock, and willing hands seized the ropes which were flung out to them.
Then amidst such cheering as I shall never forget, her crew jumped out. Forty men of them there were, strong, stalwart, strapping fellows, looking very different from our own poor lads, who were pinched and thin from long watching, and meagre fare. Their leader was Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, one of the bravest of Scottish knights, and most chivalrous of men, who had risked his life, and the lives of his men, in order to bring us help.
"Now Heaven and all the Saints be thanked, we are in time," he cried, as his eyes rested on my lady, who was standing at the head of the steps which led up to the little postern, with one babe in her arms, and the other clinging to her gown, "for dire tales have reached us of pestilence and starvation which were working their will within these walls."
Then he doffed his helmet, and ran up to where she was standing, and I wot there was not a dry eye in the crowd as he knelt and kissed her hand.
"Here greet I one of the bravest ladies in Christendom," he said, "for, by my troth, as long as the Scots tongue lasts, the story of how thou kept thy lord's castle in his absence will be handed down from father to son."
"Nay, noble sir," she answered, and there was a little catch in her voice as she spoke, "it hath not been so very hard after all. My men have been brave and leal, my walls are thick, and although the wolf hath come very near the door, he hath not as yet entered."
"Nor shall he," said Sir Alexander cheerily, as he picked up Mistress Marjory and kissed her, "for we have brought enough provisions with us to victual your Castle twice over."
And in good sooth they had. It took more than half an hour to unload the boat, and to carry its contents into the great hall. There had been kind hands and thoughtful hearts at the loading of it. There was milk for the bairns, and capons, and eggs. There was meat and ale for the men, and red French wine and white bread for my lady, and bags of grain and meal, and many other things which I scarce remember, but which were right toothsome, I can tell you, after the scanty fare on which we had been living.
And so ended the famous siege of Dunbar Castle, for on the morrow, the English, knowing that now it was hopeless to think of taking it, struck their camp, and by nightfall they were marching southwards, worsted by a woman.
And ere another day had passed, another band of armed men came riding through the woods that lie thickly o'er the valley in which lies the Lamp of Lothian [the Abbey of Haddington (an old name for it)]; but this time we knew right well the device which was emblazoned on the banners, and the horses neighed, as horses are wont to do when they scent their own stables, and the riders tossed their caps in the air at the sight of us.
And I trow that if my lady had wished for reward for all the weary months of anxiety which she had passed through, she had it in full measure when at long last she opened the Castle gates, and saw the look on her husband's face, as he took her in his arms, and kissed her, not once, but many times, there, in the courtyard, in the sight of us all.