At this juncture the upper gate was opened, and Captain Bouchier and his attendants issued from it, and passed over the drawbridge. The curfew bell then tolled, the drawbridge was raised, the horsemen disappeared, and no sound reached the listener's ear except the measured tread of the sentinels on the ramparts, audible in the profound stillness.
The youthful earl made no attempt to join his followers, but having gazed on the ancient pile before him till its battlements and towers grew dim in the twilight, he struck into a footpath leading across the park towards Datchet, and pursued it until it brought him near a dell filled with thorns, hollies, and underwood, and overhung by mighty oaks, into which he unhesitatingly plunged, and soon gained the deepest part of it. Here, owing to the thickness of the hollies and the projecting arms of other large overhanging timber, added to the uncertain light above, the gloom was almost impervious, and he could scarcely see a yard before him. Still, he pressed on unhesitatingly, and with a sort of pleasurable sensation at the difficulties he was encountering. Suddenly, however, he was startled by a blue phosphoric light streaming through the bushes on the left, and, looking up, he beheld at the foot of an enormous oak, whose giant roots protruded like twisted snakes from the bank, a wild spectral-looking object, possessing some slight resemblance to humanity, and habited, so far as it could be determined, in the skins of deer, strangely disposed about its gaunt and tawny-coloured limbs. On its head was seen a sort of helmet, formed of the skull of a stag, from which branched a large pair of antlers; from its left arm hung a heavy and rusty-looking chain, in the links of which burnt the phosphoric fire before mentioned; while on its right wrist was perched a large horned owl, with feathers erected, and red staring eyes.
Impressed with the superstitious feelings common to the age, the young earl, fully believing he was in the presence of a supernatural being, could scarcely, despite his courageous nature, which no ordinary matter would have shaken, repress a cry. Crossing himself, he repeated, with great fervency, a prayer, against evil spirits, and as he uttered it the light was extinguished, and the spectral figure vanished. The clanking of the chain was heard, succeeded by the hooting of the owl; then came a horrible burst of laughter, then a fearful wail, and all was silent.
Up to this moment the young earl had stood still, as if spell-bound; but being now convinced that the spirit had fled, he pressed forward, and, ere many seconds, emerged from the brake. The full moon was rising as he issued forth, and illuminating the glades and vistas, and the calmness and beauty of all around seemed at total variance with the fearful vision he had just witnessed. Throwing a shuddering glance at the haunted dell, he was about to hurry towards the castle, when a large, lightning-scathed, and solitary oak, standing a little distance from him, attracted his attention.
This was the very tree connected with the wild legend of Herne the Hunter, which Captain Bouchier had warned him not to approach, and he now forcibly recalled the caution. Beneath it he perceived a figure, which he at first took for that of the spectral hunter; but his fears were relieved by a shout from the person, who at the same moment appeared to catch sight of him.
Satisfied that, in the present instance, he had to do with a being of this world, Surrey ran towards the tree, and on approaching it perceived that the object of his alarm was a young man of very athletic proportions, and evidently, from his garb, a keeper of the forest.
He was habited in a jerkin of Lincoln green cloth, with the royal badge woven in silver on the breast, and his head was protected by a flat green cloth cap, ornamented with a pheasant's tail. Under his right arm he carried a crossbow; a long silver-tipped horn was slung in his baldric; and he was armed with a short hanger, or wood-knife. His features were harsh and prominent; and he bad black beetling brows, a large coarse mouth, and dark eyes, lighted up with a very sinister and malignant expression.
He was attended by a large savage-looking staghound, whom he addressed as Bawsey, and whose fierceness had to be restrained as Surrey approached.
Have you seen anything?" he demanded of the earl.
"I have seen Herne the Hunter himself, or the fiend in his likeness," replied Surrey.
And he briefly related the vision he had beheld.
"Ay, ay, you have seen the demon hunter, no doubt," replied the keeper at the close of the recital. "I neither saw the light, nor heard the laughter, nor the wailing cry you speak of; but Bawsey crouched at my feet and whined, and I knew some evil thing was at hand. Heaven shield us!" he exclaimed, as the hound crouched at his feet, and directed her gaze towards the oak, uttering a low ominous whine, "she is at the same trick again."
The earl glanced in the same direction, and half expected to see the knotted trunk of the tree burst open and disclose the figure of the spectral hunter. But nothing was visible -- at least, to him, though it would seem from the shaking limbs, fixed eyes, and ghastly visage of the keeper, that some appalling object was presented to his gaze.
"Do you not see him?" cried the latter at length, in thrilling accents; "he is circling the tree, and blasting it. There! he passes us now -- do you not see him?"
"No," replied Surrey; "but do not let us tarry here longer."
So saying he laid his hand upon the keeper's arm. The touch seemed to rouse him to exertion: He uttered a fearful cry, and set off at a quick pace along the park, followed by Bawsey, with her tail between her legs. The earl kept up with him, and neither halted till they had left the wizard oak at a considerable distance behind them.
"And so you did not see him?" said the keeper, in a tone of exhaustion, as he wiped the thick drops from his brow.
"I did not," replied Surrey.
"That is passing strange," rejoined the other. " I myself have seen him before, but never as he appeared to-night."
"You are a keeper of the forest, I presume, friend?" said Surrey. "How are you named?"
"I am called Morgan Fenwolf," replied the keeper; "and you?"
"I am the Earl of Surrey;' returned the young noble.
"What!" exclaimed Fenwolf, making a reverence, "the son to his grace of Norfolk?"
The earl replied in the affirmative.
"Why, then, you must be the young nobleman whom I used to see so often with the king's son, the Duke of Richmond, three or four years ago, at the castle? " rejoined Fenwolf "You are altogether grown out of my recollection."
Not unlikely," returned the earl. " I have been at Oxford, and have only just completed my studies. This is the first time I have been at Windsor since the period you mention."
"I have heard that the Duke of Richmond was at Oxford likewise," observed Fenwolf.
"We were at Cardinal College together," replied Surrey. "But the duke's term was completed before mine. He is my senior by three years."
I suppose your lordship is returning to the castle? " said Fenwolf.
"No," replied Surrey. " My attendants are waiting for me at the Garter, and if you will accompany me thither, I will bestow a cup of good ale upon you to recruit you after the fright you have undergone."
Fenwolf signified his graceful acquiescence, and they walked on in silence, for the earl could not help dwelling upon the vision he had witnessed, and his companion appeared equally abstracted. In this sort they descended the hill near Henry the Eighth's Gate, and entered Thames Street.