Foiled in his scheme of making Wyat the instrument of Anne Boleyn's overthrow, Wolsey determined to put into immediate operation the plan he had conceived of bringing forward a rival to her with the king. If a choice had been allowed him, he would have selected some high-born dame for the purpose; but as this was out of the question - and as, indeed, Henry had of late proved insensible to the attractions of all the beauties that crowded his court except Anne Boleyn-he trusted to the forester's fair granddaughter to accomplish his object. The source whence he had received intelligence of the king's admiration of Mabel Lyndwood was his jester, Patch - a shrewd varlet who, under the mask of folly, picked up many an important secret for his master, and was proportionately rewarded.
Before executing the scheme, it was necessary to ascertain whether the damsel's beauty was as extraordinary as it had been represented; and with this view, Wolsey mounted his mule one morning, and, accompanied by Patch and another attendant, rode towards the forest.
It was a bright and beautiful morning, and preoccupied as he was, the plotting cardinal could not be wholly insensible to the loveliness of the scene around him. Crossing Spring Hill, he paused at the head of a long glade, skirted on the right by noble beech-trees whose silver stems sparkled in the sun shine, and extending down to the thicket now called Cooke's Hill Wood. From this point, as from every other eminence on the northern side of the forest, a magnificent view of the castle was obtained.
The sight of the kingly pile, towering above its vassal woods, kindled high and ambitious thoughts in his breast.
"The lord of that proud structure has been for years swayed by me," he mused, "and shall the royal puppet be at last wrested from me by a woman's hand? Not if I can hold my own."
Roused by the reflection, he quickened his pace, and shaping his course towards Black Nest, reached in a short time the borders of a wide swamp lying between the great lake and another pool of water of less extent situated in the heart of the forest. This wild and dreary marsh, the haunt of the bittern and the plover, contrasted forcibly and disagreeably with the rich sylvan district he had just quitted.
"I should not like to cross this swamp at night," he observed to Patch, who rode close behind him.
"Nor I, your grace," replied the buffoon. "We might chance to be led by a will-o'-the-wisp to a watery grave."
"Such treacherous fires are not confined to these regions, knave," rejoined Wolsey. "Mankind are often lured, by delusive gleams of glory and power, into quagmires deep and pitfalls. Holy Virgin; what have we here?"
The exclamation was occasioned by a figure that suddenly emerged from the ground at a little distance on the right. Wolsey's mule swerved so much as almost to endanger his seat, and he called out in a loud angry tone to the author of the annoyance-
"Who are you, knave? and what do you here?"
I am a keeper of the forest, an't please your grace, replied the other, doffing his cap, and disclosing harsh features which by no means recommended him to the cardinal, "and am named Morgan Fenwolf. I was crouching among the reeds to get a shot at a fat buck, when your approach called me to my feet."
"By St. Jude! this is the very fellow, your grace, who shot the hart-royal the other day," cried Patch.
"And so preserved the Lady Anne Boleyn," rejoined the cardinal. "Art sure of it, knave?"
"As sure as your grace is of canonisation," replied Patch. "That shot should have brought you a rich reward, friend - either from the king's highness or the Lady Anne," remarked Wolsey to the keeper.
"It has brought me nothing," rejoined Fenwolf sullenly.
"Hum!" exclaimed the cardinal. "Give the fellow a piece of gold, Patch."
"Methinks I should have better earned your grace's bounty if I had let the hart work his will," said Fenwolf, reluctantly receiving the coin.
"How, fellow?" cried the cardinal, knitting his brows.
"Nay, I mean no offence," replied Fenwolf; "but the rumour goes that your grace and the Lady Anne are not well affected towards each other."
"The rumour is false," rejoined the cardinal, " and you can now contradict it on your own experience. Harkee, sirrah! where lies Tristram Lyndwood's hut?"
Fenwolf looked somewhat surprised and confused by the question.
"It lies on the other side of yonder rising ground, about half a mile hence," he said. "But if your grace is seeking old Tristram, you will not find him. I parted with him, half-an-hour ago, on Hawk's Hill, and he was then on his way to the deer-pen at Bray Wood."
"If I see his granddaughter Mabel, it will suffice," rejoined the cardinal. "I am told she is a comely damsel. Is it so?"
"I am but an indifferent judge of beauty," replied Fenwolf moodily.
"Lead my mule across this swamp, thou senseless loon," said the cardinal, "and I will give thee my blessing."
With a very ill grace Fenwolf complied, and conducted Wolsey to the farther side of the marsh.
If your grace pursues the path over the hill," he said, "and then strikes into the first opening on the right, it will bring you to the place you seek." And, without waiting for the promised blessing, he disappeared among the trees.
On reaching the top of the hill, Wolsey descried the hut through an opening in the trees at a few hundred yards' distance. It was pleasantly situated on the brink of the lake, at the point where its width was greatest, and where it was fed by a brook that flowed into it from a large pool of water near Sunninghill.
From the high ground where Wolsey now stood the view of the lake was beautiful. For nearly a mile its shining expanse was seen stretching out between banks of varied form, sometimes embayed, sometimes running out into little headlands, but everywhere clothed with timber almost to the water's edge. Wild fowl skimmed over its glassy surface, or dipped in search of its finny prey, and here and there a heron might be detected standing in some shallow nook, and feasting on the smaller fry. A flight of cawing rooks were settling upon the tall trees on the right bank, and the voices of the thrush, the blackbird, and other feathered songsters burst in redundant melody from the nearer groves.