"Well fought on both sides! "cried Henry; "it were hard to say which will prove the victor. Now, knaves, to it again - ha! ha! -- to it again!"
Once more the bags were wielded, descended, and the blows were so well directed on either side, that both combatants fell backwards. Again the king's laughter rose loud and long. Again the merriment of the other beholders was redoubled. Again Hob and Nob barked joyously, and tried to spring on to the table to take part in the conflict. Amid the general glee, the combatants rose and renewed the fight, dealing blows thick and fast -- for the bags were now considerably lightened of their contents -- until they were completely hidden from view by a cloud of white dust.
"We cannot see the fray," remarked Henry; "but we can hear the din of battle. Which will prove the victor, I marvel?"
"I am for Will Sommers," cried Bouchier.
"And I for Patch," said Simon Quanden. "Latterly he hath seemed to me to have the advantage."
"It is decided!" cried the king, rising, as one of the combatants was knocked off the table, and fell to the floor with a great noise. "Who is it?"
"Patch," replied a faint voice. And through the cloud of dust struggled forth the forlorn figure of the cardinal's jester, while Will Sommers leaped triumphantly to the ground.
"Get thee to a wash-tub, knave, and cleanse thyself," said Henry, laughing. "In consideration of the punishment thou hast undergone, I pardon thee thy treasonable speech."
"I have had everything I require, my liege," replied Mabel timidly.
"Dame Quanden will take charge of you till to-morrow," rejoined the king, "when you will enter upon the service of one of our dames."
"Your majesty is very considerate," said Mabel, "but I would rather go back at early dawn to my grandsire."
"That is needless," rejoined the king sternly. "Your grandsire is in the castle."
"I am glad to hear it! " exclaimed Mabel. And then,altering her tone, for she did not like the expression of the king's countenance, she added, "I hope he has not incurred your majesty's displeasure."
"I trust he will be able to clear himself, Mabel," said Henry, "but he labours under the grave suspicion of leaguing with lawless men."
Mabel shuddered, for the thought of what she had witnessed on the previous night during the storm rushed forcibly to her recollection. The king noticed her uneasiness, and added, in a gentler tone, "If he makes such confession as will bring the others to justice, he has nothing to fear. Dame Quanden, I commit this maiden to your charge. To-morrow she will take her place as attendant to the Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald."
So saying, he moved off with Bouchier and the rest of his attendants, leaving Mabel to the care of the cook's good humoured spouse, who seeing her eyes filled with tears, strove to cheer her, and led her towards a small side-table, where she pressed wine and cates upon her.
"Be of good cheer, sweetheart," she said, in a soothing tone; "no harm will befall your grandfather. You are much too high in favour with the king for that."
"I liked the king much better as I saw him at our cottage, good dame," replied Mabel, smiling through her tears, "in the guise of a Guildford merchant. He seemed scarcely to notice me just now."
"That was because so many eyes were upon you, sweet-heart," replied Deborah; "but sooth to say, I should be better pleased if he did not notice you at all."
Mabel blushed, and hung her head.
"I am glad you are to be an attendant on the Lady Fitzgerald," pursued Deborah, "for she is the fairest young lady at court, and as good and gentle as she is fair, and I am sure you will find her a kind mistress. I will tell you something about her. She is beloved by the king's son, the Duke of Richmond, but she requites not his passion, for her heart is fixed on the youthful Earl of Surrey. Alack-a-day! the noble rivals quarrelled and crossed swords about her; but as luck would have it, they were separated before any mischief was done. The king was very wroth with Lord Surrey, and ordered him to be imprisoned for two months in the Round Tower, in this castle, where he is now, though his term has very nearly expired."
"How I pity him, to be thus harshly treated!" remarked Mabel, her eyes swimming with tears, "and the Lady Elizabeth too! I shall delight to serve her."
"I am told the earl passes the whole of his time in poring over books and writing love-verses and sonnets," said Deborah. "It seems strange that one so young should be a poet; but I suppose he caught the art from his friend Sir Thomas Wyat."
"Is he a friend of Sir Thomas Wyat?" asked Mabel quickly.
His close friend," replied Deborah; "except the Duke of Richmond, now his rival, he had none closer. Have you ever seen Sir Thomas, sweetheart?"
"Yes, for a few moments," replied Mabel confusedly.
"I heard that he lingered for a short time in the forest before his departure for Paris," said Dame Quanden. "There was a strange rumour that he had joined the band of Herne the Hunter. But that must have been untrue."
"Is he returned from France?" inquired Mabel, without heeding the remark.
I fancy not," replied the good dame. " At all events, he is not come to the castle. Know you not," she added, in a low confidential tone, "that the king is jealous of him? He was a former suitor to the Lady Anne Boleyn, and desperately in love with her; and it is supposed that his mission to France was only a pretext to get him out of the way."
"I suspected as much," replied Mabel. "Alas! for Sir Thomas; and alas! for the Earl of Surrey."
"And alas! for Mabel Lyndwood, if she allows her heart to be fixed upon the king," said Deborah.
While this was passing the business of the kitchen, which had been interrupted by the various incidents above related, and especially by the conflict between the two jesters, was hurried forward, and for some time all was bustle and confusion.
But as soon as the supper was served, and all his duties were fully discharged, Simon Quanden, who had been bustling about, sat down in his easy-chair, and recruited himself with a toast and a sack posset. Hob and Nob had their supper at the same time, and the party at the table, which had been increased by the two archers and Nicholas Clamp, attacked with renewed vigour a fresh supply of mead and ale, which had been provided for them by Jack of the Bottles.
The conversation then turned upon Herne the Hunter; and as all had heard more or less about him, and some had seen him, while few knew the legend connected with him, Hector Cutbeard volunteered to relate it; upon which all the party gathered closer together, and Mabel and Deborah left off talking, and drew near to listen.