A week after the foregoing occurrence, the Earl of Surrey was set free. But his joy at regaining his liberty was damped by learning that the Fair Geraldine had departed for Ireland. She had left the tenderest messages for him with his sister, the Lady Mary Howard, accompanied with assurances of unalterable attachment.
But other changes had taken place, which were calculated to afford him some consolation. Ever since the night on which he had been told the Lady Mary was not indifferent to him, Richmond had devoted himself entirely to her; and matters had already proceeded so far, that he had asked her in marriage of the Duke of Norfolk, who, after ascertaining the king's pleasure on the subject, had gladly given his consent, and the youthful pair were affianced to each other. Surrey and Richmond now became closer friends than ever; and if, amid the thousand distractions of Henry's gay and festive court, the young earl did not forget the Fair Geraldine, he did not, at least, find the time hang heavily on his hands,
About a week after Wolsey's dismissal, while the court was still sojourning at Windsor, Surrey proposed to Richmond to ride one morning with him in the great park. The Duke willingly assented, and mounting their steeds, they galloped towards Snow Hill, wholly unattended. While mounting this charming ascent at a more leisurely pace, the earl said to his companion, "I will now tell you why I proposed this ride to you, Richmond. I have long determined to follow up the adventure of Herne the Hunter, and I wish to confer with you about it, and ascertain whether you are disposed to join me."
"I know not what to say, Surrey," replied the duke gravely, and speaking in a low tone. "The king, my father, failed in his endeavours to expel the demon, who still lords it in the forest."
"The greater glory to us if we succeed," said Surrey.
"I will take counsel with Lady Mary on the subject before I give an answer," rejoined Richmond.
"Then there is little doubt what your grace's decision will be," laughed Surrey. "To speak truth, it was the fear of your consulting her that made me bring you here. What say you to a ride in the forest to-morrow night?"
"I have little fancy for it," replied Richmond; "and if you will be ruled by me, you will not attempt the enterprise yourself."
"My resolution is taken," said the earl; "but now, since we have reached the brow of the hill, let us push forward to the lake."
A rapid ride of some twenty minutes brought them to the edge of the lake, and they proceeded along the verdant path leading to the forester's hut. On arriving at the dwelling, it appeared wholly deserted, but they nevertheless dismounted, and tying their horses to the trees at the back of the cottage, entered it. While they were examining the lower room, the plash of oars reached their ears, and rushing to the window, they descried the skiff rapidly approaching the shore. A man was seated within it, whose attire, though sombre, seemed to proclaim him of some rank, but as his back was towards them, they could not discern his features. In another instant the skiff touched the strand, and the rower leaping ashore, proved to be Sir Thomas Wyat. On making this discovery they both ran out to him, and the warmest greetings passed between them. When these were over, Surrey expressed his surprise to Wyat at seeing him there, declaring he was wholly unaware of his return from the court of France.
"I came back about a month ago," said Wyat. "His majesty supposes me at Allington; nor shall I return to court without a summons."
"I am not sorry to hear it," said Surrey; "but what are you doing here?"
"My errand is a strange and adventurous one," replied Wyat. "You may have heard that before I departed for France I passed some days in the forest in company with Herne the Hunter. What then happened to me I may not disclose; but I vowed never to rest till I have freed this forest from the weird being who troubles it."
"Say you so?" cried Surrey; "then you are most fortunately encountered, Sir Thomas, for I myself, as Richmond will tell you, am equally bent upon the fiend's expulsion. We will be companions in the adventure."
"We will speak of that anon," replied Wyat. "I was sorry to find this cottage uninhabited, and the fair damsel who dwelt within it, when I beheld it last, gone. What has become of her?
"It is a strange story," said Richmond. And he proceeded to relate all that was known to have befallen Mabel.
Wyat listened with profound attention to the recital, and at its close, said, " I think I can find a clue to this mystery, but to obtain it I must go alone. Meet me here at midnight to-morrow, and I doubt not we shall be able to accomplish our design."
"May I not ask for some explanation of your scheme?" said Surrey.
"Not yet," rejoined Wyat. "But I will freely confess to you that there is much danger in the enterprise -- danger that I would not willingly any one should share with me, especially you, Surrey, to whom I owe so much. If you do not find me here, therefore, to-morrow night, conclude that I have perished, or am captive."
"Well, be it as you will, Wyat," said Surrey; "but I would gladly accompany you, and share your danger."
"I know it, and I thank you," returned Wyat, warmly grasping the other's hand; "but much -- nay, all -- may remain to be done to-morrow night. You had better bring some force with you, for we may need it."
"I will bring half a dozen stout archers," replied Surrey -- and if you come not, depend upon it, I will either release you or avenge you."
"I did not intend to prosecute this adventure further," said Richmond; "but since you are both resolved to embark in it, I will not desert you."
Soon after this, the friends separated, -- Surrey and Richmond taking horse and returning to the castle, discoursing on the unlooked -- for meeting with Wyat, while the latter again entered the skiff, and rowed down the lake. As soon as the hut was clear, two persons descended the steps of a ladder leading to a sort of loft in the roof, and sprang upon the floor of the hut