"In good truth, Suffolk, we must henceforth be rated as miserable faineants, to be scared from our path by a silly wench's tale of deerstealers and wild huntsmen. I am sorry I yielded to her entreaties. If Herne be still extant, he must be more than a century and a half old, for unless the legend is false, he flourished in the time of my predecessor, Richard the Second. I would I could see him!"
"Behold him, then!" cried a harsh voice from behind.
Turning at the sound, Henry perceived a tall dark figure of hideous physiognomy and strange attire, helmed with a huge pair of antlers, standing between him and the oak-tree. So sudden was the appearance of the figure, that in spite of himself the king slightly started.
" What art thou -- ha?" he demanded.
"What I have said," replied the demon. "I am Herne the Hunter. Welcome to my domain, Harry of England. You are lord of the castle, but I am lord of the forest. Ha! ha!"
"I am lord both of the forest and the castle -- yea, of all this broad land, false fiend!" cried the king, "and none shall dispute it with me. In the name of the most holy faith, of which I am the defender, I command thee to avoid my path. Get thee backwards, Satan!"
The demon laughed derisively.
"Harry of England, advance towards me, and you advance upon your peril," he rejoined.
"Avaunt, I say!" cried the king. "In the name of the blessed Trinity, and of all holy angels and saints, I strike!
And he whirled the staff round his head. But ere the weapon could descend, a flash of dazzling fire encircled the demon, amidst which he vanished.
"Heaven protect us!" exclaimed Henry, appalled.
At this juncture the sound of a horn was heard, and a number of wild figures in fantastic garbs -- some mounted on swarthy steeds, and accompanied by hounds, others on foot-issued from the adjoining covert, and hurried towards the spot occupied by the king.
"Aha!" exclaimed Henry-" more of the same sort. Hell, it would seem, has let loose her hosts; but I have no fear of them. Stand by me, Suffolk."
"To the death, sire," replied the duke, drawing his sword. By this time one of the foremost of the impish crew had reached the king, and commanded him to yield himself prisoner.
"Dost know whom thou askest to yield, dog?" cried Henry furiously.
"Yea," replied the other, "thou art the king!"
"Then down on thy knees, traitor! " roared Henry; "down all of ye, and sue for mercy."
"For mercy -- ha! ha!" rejoined the other; "it is thy turn to sue for mercy, tyrant! We acknowledge no other ruler than Herne the Hunter."
"Then seek him in hell! " cried Henry, dealing the speaker a tremendous blow on the head with his staff, which brought him senseless to the ground.
The others immediately closed round him, and endeavoured to seize the king.
"Ha! dogs -ha! traitors!" vociferated Henry, plying his staff with great activity, and bringing down an assailant at each stroke; "do you dare to lay hands upon our sacred person? Back! back!"
The determined resistance offered by the king, supported as he was by Suffolk, paralysed his assailants, who seemed more bent upon securing his person than doing him injury. But Suffolk's attention was presently diverted by the attack of a fierce black hound, set upon him by a stout fellow in a bearded mask. After a hard struggle, and not before he had been severely bitten in the arm, the duke contrived to despatch his assailant.
"This to avenge poor Bawsey!" cried the man who had set on the hound, stabbing at Suffolk with his knife.
But the duke parried the blow, and, disarming his antagonist, forced him to the ground, and tearing off his mask, disclosed the features of Morgan Fenwolf.
Meanwhile, Henry had been placed in considerable jeopardy. Like Suffolk, he had slaughtered a hound, and, in aiming a blow at the villain who set it on, his foot slipped, and he lay at his mercy. The wretch raised his knife, and was in the act of striking when a sword was passed through his body. The blow was decisive; the king instantly arose, and the rest of his assailants-horse as well as foot -- disheartened by what had occurred, beat a hasty retreat. Harry turned to look for his deliverer, and uttered an exclamation of astonishment and anger.
"Ah! God's death!" he cried, "can I believe my eyes? Is it you, Sir Thomas Wyat?"
"Ay," replied the other.
"What do you here? Ha!" demanded the king. "You should be in Paris."
"I have tarried for revenge," replied Wyat.
"Revenge! -- ha!" cried Henry. "On whom?"
"On you," replied Wyat.
"What!" vociferated Henry, foaming with rage. "Is it you, traitor, who have devised this damnable plot? -- is it you who would make your king a captive? -- you who slay him? Have you leagued yourself with fiends?"
But Wyat made no answer; and though he lowered the point of his sword, he regarded the king sternly.
A female figure now rushed forward, and bending before the king, cried in an imploring voice -- "Spare him, sire -- spare him! He is no party to the attack. I was near him in yon wood, and he stirred not forth till he saw your life in danger. He then delivered you from the assassin."
"I did so because I reserved him for my own hand," said Wyat.
"You hear him confess his treason," cried Henry; "down on your knees, villain, or I will strike you to my feet."
"He has just saved your life, my liege," cried the supplicant. "Oh, spare him!"
"What make you here, Mabel?" cried Henry angrily. "I followed your majesty unseen," she replied, in some confusion, "and reached yon wood just as the attack commenced. I did not dare to advance farther."
"You should have gone home -- gone home," rejoined the king. "Wyat," he continued, in a tone of stern reproach, "you were once a loyal subject. What means this change?"
"It means that you have robbed me of a mistress," replied Wyat; "and for this cause I have damned myself."
"Pardon him!-oh, pardon him, sire," cried Mabel.
"I cannot understand you, Wyat," said Henry, after a pause; "but I have myself suffered from the pangs of jealousy. You have saved my life, and I will spare yours."
"Sire! " cried Wyat.
"Suffolk," exclaimed Henry, looking towards the duke, who was holding Fenwolf by the throat, "shall I be justified in letting him go free?
"Strike!- strike! " cried a deep voice in Wyat's ear; "your rival is now in your power."
"Far be it from me to thwart your majesty's generous impulses," rejoined Suffolk. "It is true that Wyat has saved your life; and if he had been disposed to take it, you have this moment exposed yourself to him."
"Sir Thomas Wyat," said the king, turning to him, "you have my full and free pardon. Quit this forest instantly, and make your way to Paris. If you are found within it to-morrow you will be lodged in the Tower."
Wyat knelt down, and would have pressed Henry's hand to his lips, but the latter pushed him aside.
"No -- no! Not now -- on your return."
Thus rebuffed, Wyat strode away, and as he passed the tree he heard a voice exclaim, " You have escaped him, but think not to escape me!"
"And now, sweetheart," said Henry, turning to Mabel, "since you are so far on the way, you shall go with me to the castle."
"On no account, my liege," she returned; "my grandsire will wonder what has become of me. He must already be in great alarm."
"But I will send an attendant to quiet his fears," urged Henry.
"That would only serve to increase them," she rejoined. "Nay, I must go."
And breaking from him, she darted swiftly down the hill, and glanced across the marsh like a moonbeam.
"Plague on it!" cried Henry, "I have again forgotten to question her about her birth."
"Shall I despatch this knave, my liege?" cried Suffolk, pointing with his sword to Fenwolf.
"By no means," said the king; "something may be learnt from him. Hark thee, thou felon hound; if thou indeed servest the fiend, thou seest he deserts thee, as he does all who put faith in him."
"I see it," replied Fenwolf, who, finding resistance vain, had folded his hands doggedly upon his breast.
"Then confess thy evil practices," said the king.
"Give me my life, and I will," replied Fenwolf. And as he uttered the words, he caught sight of the dark figure of Herne, stationed at the side of the oak, with its right arm raised menacingly.
"What seest thou? "cried Henry, remarking his fixed gaze towards the tree, and glancing in that direction.
Fenwolf made no reply.
Henry went up to the tree, and walked round it, but he could see nothing.
"I will scour the forest to-morrow," he muttered, "and hang every knave I find within it who cannot give a good account of himself."
"Ho! ho! ho! "laughed a voice, which seemed to proceed from the branches of the tree. Henry looked up, but no one was visible.
"God's death -- derided! " he roared. "Man or devil, thou shalt feel my wrath."
"Ho! ho! ho!" again laughed the voice.
Stamping with rage, Henry swore a great oath, and smote the trunk of the tree with his sword.
"Your majesty will search in vain," said Suffolk; "it is clearly the fiend with whom you have to deal, and the aid of holy priests must be obtained to drive him from the forest."
"Ho! ho! ho!" again laughed the voice.
A party of horsemen now appeared in view. They proved to be the royal attendants, who had ridden forward in search of the king, and were instantly hailed by Henry and Suffolk. They were headed by Captain Bouchier, who at a sign from the king instantly dismounted.
"Give me your horse, Bouchier," said Henry, "and do you and half-a- dozen of your men remain on guard at this tree till I send a troop of arquebusiers to relieve you. When they arrive, station them near it, and let them remain here till I return in the morning. If any one appears, make him a prisoner."
"Your majesty's orders shall be faithfully obeyed," replied Bouchier.
Bound hand and foot, Fenwolf was thrown upon the back of a horse, and guarded by two halberdiers, who were prepared to strike him dead on the slightest movement. In this way he was conveyed to the castle, and placed in the guard-chamber of the lower gate till further orders should be issued respecting him.