"Ho! ho! Ho!" laughed the foremost, whose antlered helm and wild garb proclaimed him to be Herne; "they little dreamed who were the hearers of their conference. So they think to take me, Fenwolf -- ha!"
"They know not whom they have to deal with," rejoined the latter.
"They should do so by this time," said Herne; "but I will tell thee why Sir Thomas Wyat has undertaken this enterprise. It is not to capture me, though that may be one object that moves him. But he wishes to see Mabel Lyndwood. The momentary glimpse he caught of her bright eyes was sufficient to inflame him."
"Ah!" exclaimed Fenwolf," think you so?"
"I am assured of it," replied Herne. "He knows the secret of the cave, and will find her there."
"But he will never return to tell what he has seen," said Fenwolf moodily.
"I know not that," replied Herne. "I have my own views respecting him. I want to renew my band."
"He will never join you," rejoined Fenwolf.
"What if I offer him Mabel as a bait?" said Herne.
"You will not do so, dread master?" rejoined Fenwolf, trembling and turning pale. "She belongs to me."
"To thee, fool!" cried Herne, with a derisive laugh. "Thinkest thou I would resign such a treasure to thee? No, no. But rest easy, I will not give her to Wyat."
"You mean her for yourself, then? "said Fenwolf.
"Darest thou to question me? "cried Herne, striking him with the hand armed with the iron gyves. "This to teach thee respect."
And this to prove whether thou art mortal or rejoined Fenwolf, plucking his hunting-knife from his belt, and striking it with all his force against the other's breast. But though surely and forcibly dealt, the blow glanced off as if the demon were cased in steel, and the intended assassin fell back in amazement, while an unearthly laugh rang in his ears. Never had Fenwolf seen Herne wear so formidable a look as he at that moment assumed. His giant frame dilated, his eyes flashed fire, and the expression of his countenance was so fearful that Fenwolf shielded his eyes with his hands.
"Ah, miserable dog!" thundered Herne; "dost thou think I am to be hurt by mortal hands, or mortal weapons? Thy former experience should have taught thee differently. But since thou hast provoked it, take thy fate!"
Uttering these words, he seized Fenwolf by the throat, clutching him with a terrific gripe, and in a few seconds the miserable wretch would have paid the penalty of his rashness, if a person had not at the moment appeared at the doorway. Flinging his prey hastily backwards, Herne turned at the interruption, and perceived old Tristram Lyndwood, who looked appalled at what he beheld.
"Ah, it is thou, Tristram?" cried Herne; "thou art just in time to witness the punishment of this rebellious hound."
"Spare him, dread master !oh, spare him!" cried Tristram imploringly.
"Well," said Herne, gazing at the half-strangled caitiff, "he may live. He will not offend again. But why hast thou ventured from thy hiding-place, Tristram?"
"I came to inform you that I have just observed a person row across the lake in the skiff," replied the old man. "He appears to be taking the direction of the secret entrance to the cave."
"It is Sir Thomas Wyat," replied Herne, "I am aware of his proceedings. Stay with Fenwolf till he is able to move, and then proceed with him to the cave. But mark me, no violence must be done to Wyat if you find him there. Any neglect of my orders in this respect will be followed by severe punishment. I shall be at the cave ere long; but, meanwhile, I have other business to transact."
And quitting the hut, he plunged into the wood.
Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Wyat, having crossed the lake, landed, and fastened the skiff to a tree, struck into the wood, and presently reached the open space in which lay the secret entrance to the cave. He was not long in finding the stone, though it was so artfully concealed by the brushwood that it would have escaped any uninstructed eye, and removing it, the narrow entrance to the cave was revealed.
Committing himself to the protection of Heaven, Wyat entered, and having taken the precaution of drawing the stone after him, which was easily accomplished by a handle fixed to the inner side of it, he commenced the descent. At first, he had to creep along, but the passage gradually got higher, until at length, on reaching the level ground, he was able to stand upright. There was no light to guide him, but by feeling against the sides of the passage, he found that he was in the long gallery he had formerly threaded. Uncertain which way to turn, he determined to trust to chance for taking the right direction, and drawing his sword, proceeded slowly to the right.
For some time he encountered no obstacle, neither could he detect the slightest sound, but he perceived that the atmosphere grew damp, and that the sides of the passage were covered with moisture. Thus warned, he proceeded with great caution, and presently found, after emerging into a more open space, and striking off on the left, that he had arrived at the edge of the pool of water which he knew lay at the end of the large cavern.
While considering how he should next proceed, a faint gleam of light became visible at the upper end of the vault. Changing his position, for the pillars prevented him from seeing the source of the glimmer, he discovered that it issued from a lamp borne by a female hand, who he had no doubt was Mabel. On making this discovery, he sprang forwards, and called to her, but instantly repented his rashness, for as he uttered the cry the light was extinguished.
Wyat was now completely at a loss how to proceed. He was satisfied that Mabel was in the vault; but in what way to guide himself to her retreat he could not tell, and it was evident she herself would not assist him. Persuaded, however, if he could but make himself known, he should no longer be shunned, he entered one of the lateral passages, and ever and anon, as he proceeded, repeated Mabel's name in a low, soft tone. The stratagem was successful. Presently he heard a light footstep approaching him, and a gentle voice inquired -
"Who calls me?"
"A friend," replied Wyat.
"Your name?" she demanded.
"You will not know me if I declare myself, Mabel," he replied, "but I am called Sir Thomas Wyat."
"The name is well known to me," she replied, in trembling tones; "and I have seen you once -- at my grandfather's cottage. But why have you come here? Do you know where you are?
"I know that I am in the cave of Herne the Hunter," replied Wyat; "and one of my motives for seeking it was to set you free. But there is nothing to prevent your flight now."
"Alas! there is," she replied. " I am chained here by bonds I cannot break. Herne has declared that any attempt at escape on my part shall be followed by the death of my grandsire. And he does not threaten idly, as no doubt you know. Besides, the most terrible vengeance would fall on my own head. No, -- I cannot -- dare not fly. But let us not talk in the dark. Come with me to procure a light. Give me your hand, and I will lead you to my cell."
Taking the small, trembling hand offered him, Wyat followed his conductress down the passage. A few steps brought them to a door, which she pushed aside, and disclosed a small chamber, hewn out of the rock, in a recess of which a lamp was burning. Lighting the lamp which she had recently extinguished, she placed it on a rude table.
"Have you been long a prisoner here?" asked Wyat, fixing his regards upon her countenance, which, though it had lost somewhat of its bloom, had gained much in interest and beauty.
"For three months, I suppose," she replied; "but I am not able to calculate the lapse of time. It has seemed very -- very long. Oh that I could behold the sun again, and breathe the fresh, pure air!
"Come with me, and you shall do so," rejoined Wyat.
"I have told you I cannot fly," she answered. "I cannot sacrifice my grandsire."
"But if he is leagued with this demon he deserves the worst fate that can befall him," said Wyat. "You should think only of your own safety. What can be the motive of your detention?"
I tremble to think of it," she replied; " but I fear that Herne has conceived a passion for me."
"Then indeed you must fly," cried Wyat; "such unhallowed love will tend to perdition of soul and body."
"Oh that there was any hope for me!" she ejaculated.
"There is hope," replied Wyat. "I will protect you -- will care for you -- will love you."
"Love me! "exclaimed Mabel, a deep blush overspreading her pale features. "You love another."
"Absence has enabled me to overcome the vehemence of my passion," replied Wyat, "and I feel that my heart is susceptible of new emotions. But you, maiden," he added coldly," you are captivated by the admiration of the king."
"My love, like yours, is past," she answered, with a faint smile; "but if I were out of Herne's power I feel that I could love again, and far more deeply than I loved before -- for that, in fact, was rather the result of vanity than of real regard."
"Mabel," said Wyat, taking her hand, and gazing into her eyes," if I set you free, will you love me?"
"I love you already," she replied; "but if that could be, my whole life should be devoted to you. Ha!" she exclaimed with a sudden change of tone, "footsteps are approaching; it is Fenwolf. Hide yourself within that recess."
Though doubting the prudence of the course, Wyat yielded to her terrified and imploring looks, and concealed himself in the manner she had indicated. He was scarcely ensconed in the recess, when the door opened, and Morgan Fenwolf stepped in, followed by her grandfather. Fenwolf gazed suspiciously round the little chamber, and then glanced significantly at old Tristram, but he made no remark.
"What brings you here?" demanded Mabel tremblingly.
"You are wanted in the cave," said Fenwolf.
"I will follow you anon," she replied.
"You must come at once," rejoined Fenwolf authoritatively."Herne will become impatient."
Upon this Mabel rose, and, without daring to cast a look towards the spot where Wyat was concealed, quitted the cell with them. No sooner were they all out, than Fenwolf, hastily shutting the door, turned the key in the lock, and taking it out, exclaimed, "So we have secured you, Sir Thomas Wyat. No fear of your revealing the secret of the cave now, or flying with Mabel -- ha! ha!" to here