Soon afterwards the Lady Anne and her dames retired, and the court breaking up, the two young nobles strolled forth to the stately terrace at the north of the castle, where, while gazing at the glorious view it commanded, they talked over the mysterious event of the previous night.
"I cannot help suspecting that the keeper we beheld with the demon hunter was Morgan Fenwolf," remarked the earl. "Suppose we make inquiry whether he was at home last night. We can readily find out his dwelling from Bryan Bowntance, the host of the Garter."
Richmond acquiesced in the proposal, and they accordingly proceeded to the cloisters of Saint George's Chapel, and threading some tortuous passages contrived among the canons' houses, passed through a small porch, guarded by a sentinel, and opening upon a precipitous and somewhat dangerous flight of steps, hewn out of the rock and leading to the town.
None except the more important members of the royal household were allowed to use this means of exit from the castle, but, of course, the privilege extended to Richmond and Surrey. Here in later times, and when the castle was not so strictly guarded, a more convenient approach was built, and designated, from the number of its stairs, "The Hundred Steps."
Having accomplished the descent in safety, and given the password to the sentinel at the foot of the steps, the two young nobles emerged into the street, and the first object they beheld was the body of the miserable butcher swinging from the summit of the Curfew Tower, where it was left by order of the king.
Averting their gaze from this ghastly spectacle, they took their way up Thames Street, and soon reached the Garter. Honest Bryan was seated on a bench before the dwelling, with a flagon of his own ale beside him, and rising as he saw the others approach, he made them a profound salutation.
Upon leaning what they sought, he told them that Morgan Fenwolf dwelt in a small cottage by the river-side not far from the bridge, and if it pleased them, he would guide them to it himself -- an offer which they gladly accepted.
"Do you know anything of this Fenwolf?" asked Surrey, as they proceeded on their way.
"Nothing particular," replied Bryan, with some hesitation. "There are some strange reports about him, but I don't believe 'em."
"What reports are they, friend?" asked the Duke of Richmond.
"Why, your grace, one ought to be cautious what one says, for fear of bringing an innocent man into trouble," returned the host. "But if the truth must be spoken, people do say that Morgan Fenwolf is in league with the devil -- or with Herne the Hunter, which is the same thing."
Richmond exchanged a look with his friend.
"Folks say strange sights have been seen in the forest of late," pursued Bryan -- " and it may be so. But I myself have seen nothing -- but then, to be sure, I never go there. The keepers used to talk of Herne the Hunter when I was a lad, but I believe it was only a tale to frighten deer- stealers; and I fancy it's much the same thing now."
Neither Surrey nor Richmond made any remark, and they presently reached the keeper's dwelling.
It was a small wooden tenement standing, as the host had stated, on the bank of the river, about a bow-shot from the bridge. The door was opened by Bryan, and the party entered without further ceremony. They found no one within except an old woman, with harsh, wrinkled features, and a glance as ill-omened as that of a witch, whom Bryan Bowntance told them was Fenwolf's mother. This old crone regarded the intruders uneasily.
"Where is your son, dame?" demanded the duke.
"On his walk in the forest," replied the old crone bluntly.
"What time did he go forth?" inquired Surrey.
"An hour before daybreak, as is his custom," returned the woman, in the same short tone as before.
"You are sure he slept at home last night, dame?" said Surrey.
"As sure as l am that the question is asked me," she replied. "I can show you the very bed on which he slept, if you desire to see it. He retired soon after sunset -- slept soundly, as he always sleeps -- and arose as I have told you. I lighted a fire, and made him some hot pottage myself."
"If she speaks the truth, you must be mistaken," observed Richmond in a whisper to his friend.
"I do not believe her," replied Surrey, in the same tone. "Show us his chamber, dame."
The old crone sullenly complied, and, throwing open a side door, disclosed an inner apartment, in which there was a small bed. There was nothing noticeable in the room except a couple of fishing-nets, a hunting-spear, and an old cross-bow. A small open casement looked upon the river, whose clear sparkling waters flowed immediately beneath it.
Surrey approached the window, and obtained a fine view of the Brocas meads on the one hand, and the embowered college of Eton on the other. His attention, however, was diverted by a fierce barking without, and the next moment, in spite of the vociferations of the old woman, a large black staghound, which Surrey recognised as Fenwolf's dog, Bawsey, burst through the door, and rushed furiously towards him. Surrey drew his dagger to defend himself from the hound's attack, but the precaution was needless. Bawsey's fierceness changed suddenly to the most abject submission, and with a terrified howl, she retreated from the room with' her tail between her legs. Even the old woman uttered a cry of surprise.
"Lord help us!" exclaimed Bryan; "was ever the like o' that seen? Your lordship must have a strange mastery over dogs. That hound," he added, in a whisper, "is said to be a familiar spirit."
"The virtue of the relic is approved," observed Surrey to Richmond, in an undertone.
"It would seem so," replied the duke.
The old woman now thought proper to assume a more respectful demeanour towards her visitors, and inquired whether her son should attend upon them on his return from the forest, but they said it was unnecessary.
"The king is about to have a grand hunting-party the day after to- morrow," observed Surrey, "and we wished to give your son some instructions respecting it. They can, however, be delivered to another keeper."
And they departed with Bryan, and returned to the castle. At midnight they again issued forth. Their steeds awaited them near the upper gate, and, mounting, they galloped across the greensward in the direction of Herne's Oak. Discerning no trace of the ghostly huntsman, they shaped their course towards the forest.
Urging their steeds to their utmost speed, and skirting the long avenue, they did not draw the rein till they reached the eminence beyond it; having climbed which, they dashed down the farther side at the same swift pace as before. The ride greatly excited them, but they saw nothing of the wild huntsman; nor did any sound salute their ears except the tramp of their own horses, or the occasional darting forth of a startled deer.
Less than a quarter of an hour brought them to the haunted beech-tree; but all was as silent and solitary here as at the blasted oak. In vain Surrey smote the tree. No answer was returned to the summons; and, finding all efforts to evoke the demon fruitless, they quitted the spot, and, turning their horses' heads to the right, slowly ascended the hill- side.
Before they had gained the brow of the hill the faint blast of a horn saluted their ears, apparently proceeding from the valley near the lake. They instantly stopped and looked in that direction, but could see nothing. Presently, however, the blast was repeated more loudly than before, and, guided by the sound, they discerned the spectral huntsman riding beneath the trees at some quarter of a mile's distance.
Striking spurs into their steeds, they instantly gave him chase; but though he lured them on through thicket and over glade -- now climbing a hill, now plunging into a valley, until their steeds began to show symptoms of exhaustion- they got no nearer to him; and at length, as they drew near the Home Park, to which he had gradually led them, he disappeared from view.
"I will take my station near the blasted oak," said Surrey, galloping towards it: "the demon is sure to revisit his favourite tree before cock- crowing."
"What is that?" cried the Earl of Surrey, pointing to a strange and ghastly-looking object depending from the tree. "Some one has hanged himself! It may be the caitiff, Morgan Fenwolf."
With one accord they dashed forward, and as they drew nearer the tree, they perceived that the object that had attracted their attention was the body of Mark Fytton, the butcher, which they had so recently seen swinging from the summit of the Curfew Tower. It was now suspended from an arm of the wizard oak.
A small scroll was stuck upon the breast of the corpse, and, taking it off, Surrey read these words, traced in uncouth characters -- "Mark Fytton is now one of the band of Herne the Hunter."
"By my fay, this passes all comprehension," said Richmond, after a few moments' silence. "This castle and forest seem under the sway of the powers of darkness. Let us return. I have had enough of adventure for to-night."
And he rode towards the castle, followed more slowly by the earl.