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Wilson's Border Tales
The Guid Wife of Coldingham
Chapter 2

It was a few days after this that Madge was summoned to the village of Home, to attend the funeral of a relative; and while she was yet there, the castle of her ancestors was daringly wrested from the hands of the Protector’s troops, by an aged kinsman of her own, and a handful of armed men. The gallant deed fired her zeal more keenly, and strengthened her resolution to wrest Fast Castle from the hands of the invaders. She had been detained at Home until the day on which Florence Wilson was to assemble the stout-hearted and trust-worthy in the copse above Houndwood. Her kindred would have detained her longer; but she resisted their entreaties and took leave of them, saying that, "her bit lassie, Janet, would be growing irksome wi’ being left alane, an’ that, at ony rate, she had business on hand that couldna be delayed."

She proceeded direct to the place of rendezvous, without going onwards to her own house; and, as she drew near the narrow opening which led to the green space in the centre of the dark copse, the young moon was sinking behind the hills. As she drew cautiously forward, she heard the sound of voices, which gradually became audible.

"Well, Florence," said one, "what are ye waiting for? Where is the grand project that ye was to lay before us?"

"Florence," said others, "let us proceed to business. It is gaun to be very dark, and ye will remember we have to gang as far as the Peaths [The Pease Bridge] the night yet."

Florence answered as one perplexed, but in his wonted words—"Hae patience—bide a wee;" and added, in a sort of soliloquy, but loud enough to be overheard by his companions—"She promised to be here before the moon gaed down upon the Lammermoors."

"Wha did?—wha promised to be here?" inquired half a dozen voices.

"I did!" cried Madge, proudly, as she issued from the narrow aperture in the copse, and her tall figure was revealed by the fading moonbeams. With a stately step, she walked into the midst of them, and gazed round as though the blood and dignity of all the Homes had been centered in her own person.

"Weel, Madge," inquired they, "and since ye are come, for what hae ye brought us here?"

"To try," added she, "whether inheriting, as ye do, yer faithers’ bluid, ye also inherit their spirit—to see whether ye hae the manhood to break the yoke o’ your oppressors, or if ye hae the courage to follow the example which the men o’ Home set ye the other nicht."

"What have they done?" inquired Florence.

"Hearken," said she, "ane and a’ o’ ye, and I will tell ye; for, wi’ my ain een, I beheld a sicht that was as joyfu’ to me as the sight o’ a sealed pardon to a condemned criminal. Ye weel ken, that for near twa years, the English have held Home Castle, just as they still hold Fast Castle beside us. Now, it was the other nicht, and just as the grey gloam was darkening the towers, that an auld kinsman o’ mine, o’ the name o’ Home, scaled the walls where they were highest, strongest, and least guarded; thirty gallant countrymen had accompanied him to their foot, but, before they could follow his example, he was perceived by a sentinal, wha shouted out—‘To arms!—to arms!’ ‘Cower, lads, cower!’ said my auld kinsman, in a sort o’ half whisper, to his followers, and he again descended the wall, and they lay down, with their swords in their hands, behind some whin bushes at the foot o’ the battlements. There was running, clanking, and shouting, through the castle for a time; but, as naething like the presence o’ an enemy was either seen or heard, the sentry that had raised the alarm was laughed at, and some gaed back to their beds, and others to their wine. But, after about two hours, and when a’ things were again quiet, my kinsman and his followers climbed the walls, and rushing frae sentinel to sentinel, they owercame ane after anither before they could gie the alarm to the garrison in the castle; and, bursting into it, shouted—‘Hurra—Scotland and Home for ever!’ Panic seized the garrison; some started frae their sleep—others reeled frae their cups— some grasped their arms—others ran, they knew not where— but terror struck the hearts o’ ane and a’; and still, as the cry ‘Scotland and Home for ever!’ rang frae room to room, and was echoed through the lang, high galleries, it seemed like the shouting o’ a thousand men; and, within ten minutes, every man in the garrison was made prisoner or put to the sword! And noo, neebors, what my kinsman and a handfu’ o’ countrymen did for the deliverance o’ the Castle o’ Home, can ye not do for Fast Castle, or will ye not--and so drive every invader oot o’ Berwickshire? ‘

"I dinna mean to say, Madge," answered one, who appeared to be the most influential personage amongst her auditors—"I dinna mean to say but that your relation and his comrades hae performed a most noble and gallant exploit-one that renders them worthy o’ being held in everlasting remembrance by their countrymen—and glad would I be if we could this night do the same for Fast Castle. But woman, the thing is impossible; the cases are not parallel. It mightna be a difficult matter to scale the highest part o’ the walls o’ Home Castle, and ladders could easily be got for that purpose; but, at Fast Castle, wi’ the draw-brig up, and the dark, deep, terrible chasm between you and the walls, like a bottomless gulf between time and eternity!—I say, again, for my part, the thing is impossible. Wha has strength o’ head, even for a moment, to look doun frae the dark and dizzy height o’ the Wolf’s Crag?—and wha could think o’ scaling it? Even if it had been possible, the stoutest heart that ever beat in a bosom would, wi’ the sickening horror o’ its owner’s situation, before he was half-way up, be dead as the rocks that would dash him to pieces as he fell! Na, na, I should hae been glad to lend a helping and a willing hand to ony practicable plan, but it would be madness to throw away our lives where there couldna be the slightest possibility o’ success."

"Listen," said Madge; "I ken what is possible, and what is impossible, as weel as ony o’ ye. I meant that ye should tak for example the dauntless spirit o’ my kinsman and the men o’ Home, and no their manner o’ entering the castle. But, if yer hearts beat as their hearts did, before this hour the morn’s nicht, the invaders will be driven frae Fast Castle. In the mornin’ we are ordered to take provisions to the garrison. I shall be wi’ ye, and in the front o’ ye. But, though my left arm carries a basket, beneath my cloak shall be hidden the bit sword which my guidman wore in the wars against King Harry; and, as I reach the last sentinel—‘Now lads! now for Scotland and our Queen!’ I shall cry; and wha dare follow my example!"

"I dare! I will!" said Florence Wilson, "and be at yer side to strike doun the sentinel; and sure am I that there isna a man here that winna do or die, and drive owre enemies frae the Castle, or leave his body within its wa’s for them to cast into the sea. Every man o’ us the morn, will enter the Castle wi’ arms concealed aboot him, and hae them ready to draw and strike at a moment’s warning. Ye canna say, freends, but what this is a feasible plan, and ye winna be outdone in bravery by a woman. Do ye agree to it?"

There were cries of—"Yes, Florence, yes!—every man o’ us!"—and "It is an excellent plan—it is only a pity that it hadna been thocht o’ suner," resounded on all sides; but "Better late than never," said others.

"Come round me, then," said Madge; and they formed a circle around her. "Ye swear now," she continued, "in the presence o’ Him who see’th through the darkness o’ night and searcheth the hearts that nane o’ ye will betray to oor enemies what we hae this nicht determined on, but that every man o’ ye will, the morn, though at the price o’ his life, do yer utmost to deliver owre groaning country frae the yoke o’ its invaders and oppressors! This ye swear?"

And they bowed their heads around her.

"Awa, then," added she, "ilka man to his ain hoose, and get his weapons in readiness." And leaving the copse, they proceeded in various directions across the desolate moor. But Florence Wilson accompanied Madge to her dwelling; and, as they went, she said—

"Florence, if ye act as weel the morn as ye hae spoken this nicht, the morn shall my docther, Janet, be yer wife, wi’ a fu’ purse for her portion that neither o’ ye kens aboot."

He pressed her hand in the fulness of his heart; but she added—

"Na, na, Florence, I’m no a person that cares aboot a fuss being made for the sake o’ gratitude—thank me wi’ deeds. Remember I have said—a’ depends on yer conduct the morn."

When they entered the house, poor Janet was weeping because of her mother’s absence, for she had expected her for two days; and her apprehensions were not removed when she saw her in the company of Florence, who, although her destined husband, and who, though, he had long been in the habit of visiting her daily, had called but once during her mother’s absence, and then he was sad and spoke little. She saw that her parent had prevailed on him to undertake some desperate project, and she wept for his sake.

When he arose to depart she arose also and accompanied him to the door.

"Florence," said she tenderly, "you and my mother hae some secret between ye, which ye winna communicate to me."

"A’ that is a secret between us," said he, "is, that she consents that the morn ye shall be my winsome bride, if ye be willing, as I’m sure ye are and that is nae secret that I wad keep frae ye: but I didna wish to put ye aboot by mentioning it before her."

Janet blushed, and again added—

"But there is something mair between ye than that, Florence, and why should ye hide it frae me."

"Dear me, hinny!" said he, "I wonder that ye should be sae apprehensive. There is nae secret between yer mother an’ me that isna weel kenned to every ane in the country-side. But just ye hae patience--bide a wee--wait only till the morn: and when I come to lead ye afore the minister, I’ll tell ye a’ things then."

"An’ wherefore no tell me the noo, Florence?" said she. "I am sure that there is something brewing, an’ a dangerous something too. Daur ye no trust me? Ye may think me a weak an’ a silly creature; but, if I am not just so rash and outspoken as my mother; try me if I haena as stout a heart when there is a necessity for showing it."

"Weel, Janet, dear," said Florence, "I winna conceal frae ye that there is something brewing—but what that something is I am not at liberty to tell. I am bound by an oath not to speak o’t, and so are a hunder others, as weel as me. But the morn it will be in my power to tell ye a’. Noo, just ye be contented, and get ready for our wedding."

"And my mother kens," Janet was proceeding to say, when her mother’s voice was heard, crying from the house—

"Come in, Janet—what are ye doing oot there in the cauld?—ye hae been lang enough wi’ Florence the nicht—but the morn’s nicht ye may speak to him as lang as ye like. See, come in, lassie."

It was a little after sunrise on the following day, when a body of more than a hundred peasantry, agreeably to the command of the governor, appeared before the Castle, laden with provisions. Some of them had the stores which they had brought upon the backs of horses, but which they placed upon their own shoulders as they approached the bridge. Amongst them were fishermen from Eyemouth and Coldingham, shepherds from the hills with slaughtered sheep, millers, and cultivators of the patches of arable ground beyond the moor. With them, also, were a few women carrying eggs, butter, cheese, and poultry; and at the head of the procession (for the narrowness of the drawbridge over the frightful chasm, beyond which the Castle stood, caused the company to assume the form of a procession as they entered the walls) was Madge Gordon, and her intended son-in-law, Florence Wilson.

The drawbridge had been let down to them; the last of the burden-bearers had crossed it, and Madge had reached the farthest sentinel, when suddenly dropping her basket, out from beneath her grey cloak gleaned the sword of her dead husband!

"Now, lads!—now for Scotland and our Queen!" she exclaimed, and as she spoke, the sword in her hand pierced the body of the sentinel. At the same instant, every man cast his burden to the ground, a hundred hidden swords were revealed, and every sentinel was overpowered.

"Forward, lads? Forward!" shouted Madge.

"Forward!" cried Florence Wilson, with his sword in his hand, leading the way. They rushed into the interior of the Castle; they divided into bands. Some placed themselves before the arsenal where arms were kept, while others rushed from room to room, making prisoners of those of the garrison who yielded willingly, and showing no quarter to those who resisted. Many sought safety in flight, some flying half-naked, aroused from morning dreams after a night’s carouse, and almost all fled without weapons of defence. The effect upon the garrison was as if a thunderbolt had burst in the midst of them. Within half an hour, Fast Castle was in the hands of the peasantry, and the entire soldiery who had defended it had either fled, were slain, or made prisoners.

Besides striking the first blow, Madge had not permitted the sword of her late husband to remain idle in her hands during the conflict. And, as the conquerors gathered round Florence Wilson, to acknowledge to him that to his counsel, presence of mind, and courage, as their leader, in the victory, and the deliverance of the east of Berwickshire from its invaders, Madge pressed forward, and, presenting him her husband’s sword, said—

"Tak this, my son, and keep it—it was the sword o’ a brave man, and to a brave man I gie it—and this night shall ye be my son indeed."

"Thank ye, mother—mother!" said Florence. And as he spoke a faint smile crossed his features.

But scarce had he taken the sword in his hand, ere a voice was heard, crying—

"Where is he?—where shall I find him?—does he live?—where is my mother?"

"Here, love!—here! It is my Janet!" cried Florence, but his voice seemed to fail him as he spoke.

"Come here, my bairn," cried her mother, "and in the presence o’ these witnesses, receive a hand that ye may be proud o’"

As part of the garrison fled through Coldingham, Janet had heard of the surprise by which the Castle had been taken, and ran towards it to gather tidings of her mother and affianced husband; for she now knew the secret which they would now reveal to her.

As she rushed forward, the crowd that surrounded Florence gave way, and, as he moved forward to meet her, it was observed that he shook or staggered as he went; but it was thought no more of; and when she fell upon his bosom, and her mother took their hands and pressed them together, the multitude burst into a shout and blessed them. He strove to speak—he muttered the word "Janet!" but his arms fell from her neck, and he sank as lifeless on the ground.

"Florence! my Florence!—he is wounded—murdered!" cried the maiden, and she flung herself beside him on the ground.

Madge and the spectators endeavoured to raise him; but his eyes were closed; and, as he grasped, they with difficulty could understand the words he strove to utter—"Water— water!"

He had indeed been wounded—mortally wounded—but he spoke not of it. They raised him in their arms and carried him to an apartment in the Castle; but, ere they reached it, the spirit of Florence Wilson had fled.

Poor Janet clung to his lifeless body. She now cried— "Florence!—Florence!—we shall be married to-night!— yes!—yes!—I have everything ready!" And again she spoke bitter words to her mother, and said that she had murdered her Florence. The spectators lifted her from his body, and Madge stood as one on whom affliction, in the midst of her triumph, had fallen as a palsy, depriving her of speech and action.

"My poor bereaved bairn!" she at length exclaimed, and she took her daughter in her arms and kissed her—"ye hae indeed cause to mourn, for Florence was a noble lad!—but, oh, dinna say it was my doing, hinny!—dinna wyte yer mother!—will ye no, Janet? It is a great comfort that Florence has died like a hero."

But Janet never was herself again. She became, as their neighbours said, a poor, melancholy, maundering creature, going about talking of her Florence and the surprise of Fast Castle, and ever ending her story—"But I maun awa hame and get ready, for Florence and I are to be married the nicht."

Madge followed her, mourning, wheresoever she went, bearing with and soothing all her humours. But she had not long to bear them; for, within two years, Janet was laid by the side of Florence Wilson, in Coldingham kirkyard; and, before another winter howled over their peaceful graves, Madge lay at rest beside them.

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