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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,[14] 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.

[Footnote 14: Sky.]

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[15] 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.

[Footnote 15: Crow's.]

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 -

"Come I early, come I late,
I find Annot at the gate,"

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


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Online LibraryElizabeth Wilson GriersonTales From Scottish Ballads → online text (page 9 of 17)