"You can now proceed without my aid," said Herne: "but take care not to expose yourself to the sentinels."
Keeping under the shade of the trees, for the moon was shining brightly, Surrey hastened towards the arbour, and as he entered it, to his inexpressible delight found that he had not been deceived, but that the Fair Geraldine was indeed there.
"How did you contrive this meeting? " she cried, after their first greetings had passed. "And how did you learn I was in the castle, for the strictest instructions were given that the tidings should not reach you."
The only response made by Surrey was to press her lily hand devotedly to his lips.
"I should not have ventured hither," pursued the Fair Geraldine, "unless you had sent me the relic as a token. I knew you would never part with it, and I therefore felt sure there was no deception."
"But how did you get here? " inquired Surrey.
"Your messenger provided a rope-ladder, by which I descended into the moat," she replied.
Surrey was stupefied.
"You seem astonished at my resolution," she continued; "and, indeed, I am surprised at it myself; but I could not overcome my desire to see you, especially as this meeting may be our last. The king, through the Lady Anne Boleyn, has positively enjoined me to think no more of you and has given your father, the Duke of Norfolk, to understand that your marriage without the royal assent will be attended by the loss of all the favour he now enjoys."
"And think you I will submit to such tyranny?" cried Surrey.
"Alas!" replied the Fair Geraldine in a mournful tone, "I feel we shall never be united. This conviction, which has lately forced itself upon my mind, has not made me love you less, though it has in some degree altered my feelings towards you."
"But I may be able to move the king," cried Surrey. "I have some claim besides that of kindred on the Lady Anne Boleyn -- and she will obtain his consent."
"Do not trust to her," replied the Fair Geraldine. "You may have rendered her an important service, but be not too sure of a return. No, Surrey, I here release you from the troth you plighted to me in the cloisters."
I will not be released from it!" cried the earl hastily; "neither will I release you. I hold the pledge as sacred and as binding as if we had been affianced together before Heaven."
"For your own sake, do not say so, my dear lord," rejoined the Fair Geraldine; "I beseech you, do not. That your heart is bound to me now, I well believe -- and that you could become inconstant I will not permit myself to suppose. But your youth forbids an union between us for many years; and if during that time you should behold some fairer face than mine, or should meet some heart you may conceive more loving -- though that can hardly be -- I would not have a hasty vow restrain you. Be free, then -- free at least for three years -- and if at the end of that time your affections are still unchanged, I am willing you should bind yourself to me for ever."
" I cannot act with equal generosity to you," rejoined Surrey in a tone of deep disappointment. "I would sooner part with life than relinquish the pledge I have received from you. But I am content that my constancy should be put to the test you propose. During the long term of my probation, I will shrink from no trial of faith. Throughout Europe I will proclaim your beauty in the lists, and will maintain its supremacy against all comers. But, oh! sweet Geraldine, since we have met in this spot, hallowed by the loves of James of Scotland and Jane Beaufort, let us here renew our vows of eternal constancy, and agree to meet again at the time you have appointed, with hearts as warm and loving as those we bring together now."
And as he spoke he drew her towards him, and imprinted a passionate kiss on her lips.
"Let that ratify the pledge," he said.
"Ho! ho! ho!" laughed a deep voice without.
"What was that?" demanded the Fair Geraldine in a tone of alarm.
"You have the relic, have you not?" inquired the earl in a low tone.
"No" she replied, '' your messenger merely showed it to me. But why do you ask? Ah! I understand. The fiendish laughter that just now sounded in my ears proceeded from -- "
"Herne the Hunter," replied Surrey, in a whisper. "But fear nothing. I will defend you with my life. Ah! accursed chance! I have no weapon."
"None would avail against him," murmured the Fair Geraldine. "Lead me forth; I shall die if I stay here."
Supporting her in his arms, Surrey complied, but they had scarcely gained the entrance of the arbour, when a tall figure stood before them. It was the Duke of Richmond. A gleam of moonlight penetrating through the leaves, fell upon the group, and rendered them distinctly visible to each other.
"Soh!" exclaimed the duke, after regarding the pair in silence for a moment, "I have not been misinformed. You have contrived a meeting here."
"Richmond," said Surrey sternly, "we once were dear and loving friends, and we are still honourable foes. I know that I am safe with you. I know you will breathe no word about this meeting, either to the Fair Geraldine's prejudice or mine.
"You judge me rightly, my lord," replied the duke, in a tone of equal sternness. "I have no thought of betraying you; though, by a word to my royal father, I could prevent all chance of future rivalry on your part. I shall, however, demand a strict account from you on liberation."
" Your grace acts as beseems a loyal gentleman," replied Surrey. "Hereafter I will not fail to account to you for my conduct in any way you please."
Oh! let me interpose between you, my lords," cried the Fair Geraldine, "to prevent the disastrous consequences of this quarrel. I have already told your grace I cannot love you, and that my heart is devoted to the Earl of Surrey. Let me appeal to your noble nature -- to your generosity -- not to persist in a hopeless suit."
"You have conquered madam," said the duke, after a pause. "I have been to blame in this matter. But I will make amends for my error. Surrey, I relinquish her to you."
"My friend! " exclaimed the earl, casting himself into the duke's arms.
"I will now endeavour to heal the wounds I have unwittingly occasioned," said the Fair Geraldine. "I am surprised your grace should be insensible to attractions so far superior to mine as those of the Lady Mary Howard."
"The Lady Mary is very beautiful, I confess," said the duke; "and if you had not been in the way, I should assuredly have been her captive."
"I ought not to betray the secret, perhaps," hesitated the Fair Geraldine, "but gratitude prompts me to do so. The lady is not so blind to your grace's merits as I have been."
Indeed! " exclaimed the duke. " If it be so, Surrey, we may yet be brothers as well as friends."
"And that it is so I can avouch, Richmond," rejoined the earl, "for I am in my sister's secret as well as the Fair Geraldine. But now that this explanation has taken place, I must entreat your grace to conduct the Fair Geraldine back to her lodgings, while I regain, the best way I can, my chamber in the Round Tower."
"I marvel how you escaped from it," said Richmond; "but I suppose it was by the connivance of the officer."
"He who set me free -- who brought the Fair Geraldine hither -- and who, I suspect, acquainted you with our meeting, was no other than Herne the Hunter," replied Surrey.
"You amaze me!" exclaimed the duke; "it was indeed a tall dark man, muffled in a cloak, who informed me that you were to meet at midnight in King James's bower in the moat, and I therefore came to surprise you."
"Your informant was Herne," replied Surrey.
"Right!" exclaimed the demon, stepping from behind a tree, where he had hitherto remained concealed; "it was I -- I, Herne the Hunter. And I contrived the meeting in anticipation of a far different result from that which has ensued. But I now tell you, my lord of Surrey, that it is idle to indulge a passion for the Fair Geraldine. You will never wed her."
"False fiend, thou liest!" cried Surrey.
"Time will show," replied Herne. "I repeat, you will wed another -- and more, I tell you, you are blinder than Richmond has shown himself -- for the most illustrious damsel in the kingdom has regarded you with eyes of affection, and yet you have not perceived it."
"The Princess Mary? "demanded Richmond.
"Ay, the Princess Mary," repeated Herne. "How say you now, my lord ? -- will you let ambition usurp the place of love?"
No," replied Surrey. "But I will hold no further converse with thee. Thou wouldst tempt to perdition. Hence, fiend!"
"Unless you trust yourself to my guidance, you will never reach your chamber," rejoined Herne, with a mocking laugh. "The iron door in the mound cannot be opened on this side, and you well know what the consequence of a discovery will be. Come, or I leave you to your fate." And he moved down the path on the right.
"Go with him, Surrey," cried Richmond.
Pressing the Fair Geraldine to his breast, the Earl committed her to the charge of his friend, and tearing himself away, followed the steps of the demon. He had not proceeded far when he heard his name pronounced by a voice issuing from the tree above him. Looking up, he saw Herne in one of the topmost branches, and at a sign, instantly climbed up to him. The thick foliage screened them from observation, arid Surrey concluded his guide was awaiting the disappearance of the sentinel, who was at that moment approaching the tree. But such apparently was not the other's intentions; for the man had scarcely passed than Herne sprang upon the ramparts, and the poor fellow turning at the sound, was almost scared out of his senses at the sight of the dreaded fiend. Dropping his halbert, he fell upon his face with a stifled cry Herne then motioned Surrey to descend, and they marched together quickly to a low door opening into the keep. Passing through it, and ascending a flight of steps, they stood upon the landing at the top of the staircase communicating with the Norman Tower, and adjoining the entrance to Surrey's chamber.
Apparently familiar with the spot, Herne took down a large key from a nail in the wall, against which it hung, and unlocked the door.
"Enter," he said to Surrey, "and do not forget the debt you owe to Herne the Hunter."
And as the earl stepped into the chamber, the door was locked behind him.