"Give you good e'en, friend," said the foremost stranger to the forester. "We are belated travellers, on our way from Guildford to Windsor, and, seeing your cottage, have called to obtain some refreshment before we cross the great park. We do not ask you to bestow a meal upon us, but will gladly pay for the best your larder affords."
You shall have it, and welcome, my masters," replied Tristram,"but I am afraid my humble fare will scarcely suit you."
"Fear nothing," replied the other; "we have good appetites, and are not over dainty. Beshrew me, friend," he added, regarding Mabel, "you have a comely daughter."
"5he is my granddaughter, sir," replied Tristram.
"Well, your granddaughter, then," said the other; "by the mass, a lovely wench. We have none such in Guildford, and I doubt if the king hath such in Windsor Castle. What say you, Charles Brandon?"
"It were treason to agree with you, Harry La Roy," replied Brandon, laughing, "for they say the king visits with the halter all those who disparage the charms of the Lady Anne Boleyn. But, comparisons apart, this damsel is very fair."
"You will discompose her, my masters, if you praise her thus to her face," said Tristram somewhat testily. " Here, Mab, bring forth all my scanty larder affords, and put some rashers of bacon on the fire."
"Cold meat and bread will suffice for us," said Harry: "we will not trouble the damsel to play the cook."
With this Mabel, who appeared a good deal embarrassed by the presence of the strangers, spread a cloth of snow-white linen on the little table, and placed the remains of the pie and a large oven cake before them. The new-comers sate down, and ate heartily of the humble viands, he who had answered to the name of Harry frequently stopping in the course of his repast to compliment his fair attendant.
"By our Lady, I have never been so waited on before," he added, rising and removing his stool towards the fire, while his companion took up a position, with his back against the wall, near the fireplace. "And now, my pretty Mabel, have you never a cup of ale to wash down the pie?"
"I can offer you a draught of right good mead, master," said Tristram; "and that is the only liquor my cottage can furnish."
"Nothing can be better," replied Harry. "The mead, by all means,"
While Mabel went to draw the liquor, Tristram fixed his eyes on Harry, whose features were now fully revealed by the light of the fire.
"Why do you look at me so hard, friend?" demanded Harry bluffly.
"I have seen some one very like you, master," replied Tristram, "and one whom it is no light honour to resemble."
"You mean the king," returned Harry, laughing. "You are not the first person who has thought me like him."
"You are vain of the likeness, I see, master," replied Tristram, joining in the laugh. "How say you, Mab?" he added to his granddaughter, who at that moment returned with a jug and a couple of drinking-horns. "Whom does this gentleman resemble?"
"No one," returned Mabel, without raising her eyes.
"No one," echoed Harry, chucking her under the chin. "Look me full in the face, and you will find out your mistake. Marry, if I were the royal Henry, instead of what I am, a plain Guildford merchant, I should prefer you to Anne Boleyn."
"Is that said in good sooth, sir?" asked Mabel, slightly raising her eyes, and instantly dropping them before the ardent gaze of the self-styled merchant.
"In good sooth and sober truth," replied Henry, rounding his arm and placing his hand on his lusty thigh in true royal fashion.
"Were you the royal Henry, I should not care for your preference," said Mabel more confidently. "My grandsire says the king changes his love as often as the moon changes -- nay, oftener."
"God's death! -- your grandsire is a false knave to say so! cried Harry.
"Heaven help us! you swear the king's oaths," said Mabel. "And wherefore not, sweetheart?" said Harry, checking himself. "It is enough to make one swear, and in a royal fashion too, to hear one's liege lord unjustly accused. I have ever heard the king styled a mirror of constancy. How say you, Charles Brandon? -- can you not give him a good character?"
"Oh! an excellent character," said Brandon. "He is constancy itself -- while the fit lasts," he added, aside.
"You hear what my friend says, sweetheart," observed Harry; "and I assure you he has the best opportunities of judging. But I'll be sworn you did not believe your grand-sire when he thus maligned the king."
"She contradicted me flatly," said Tristram. "But pour out the mead, girl; our guests are waiting for it."
While Mabel, in compliance with her grandsire's directions, filled the horn, the door of the cottage was noiselessly opened by Morgan Fenwolf, who stepped in, followed by Bawsey. He stared inquisitively at the strangers, but both were so much occupied by the damsel that he remained unnoticed. A sign from the old forester told him he had better retire: jealous curiosity, however, detained him, and he tarried till Harry had received the cup from Mabel, and drained it to her health. He then drew back, closed the door softly, and joined a dark and mysterious figure, with hideous lineaments and an antlered helm upon its brows, lurking outside the cottage.
Meanwhile, a cup of mead having been offered to Brandon, he observed to his companion, "We must now be setting forth on our journey. Night is advancing, and we have five long miles to traverse across the great park."
"I would stay where I am," rejoined Harry, "and make a bench near the fire serve me in lieu of a couch, but that business requires our presence at the castle to-night. There is payment for our meal, friend," he added, giving a mark to Tristram, "and as we shall probably return to-morrow night, we will call and have another supper with you. Provide us a capon, and some fish from the lake."
"You pay as you swear, good sir, royally," replied Tristram. "You shall have a better supper to-morrow night."
You have a dangerous journey before you, sir," said Mabel. "They say there are plunderers and evil spirits in the great park."
"I have no fear of any such, sweetheart," replied Harry. "I have a strong arm to defend myself, and so has my friend Charles Brandon. And as to evil spirits, a kiss from you will shield me from all ill."
And as he spoke, he drew her towards him, and clasping her in his arms, imprinted a score of rapid kisses on her lips.
"Hold! hold, master!" cried Tristram, rising angrily; "this may not be. 'Tis an arrant abuse of hospitality."
"Nay, be not offended, good friend," replied Harry, laughing. "I am on the look-out for a wife, and I know not but I may take your granddaughter with me to Guildford."
"She is not to be so lightly won," cried Tristram; "for though I am but a poor forester, I rate her as highly as the haughtiest noble can rate his child."
"And with reason," said Harry. "Good-night, sweet-heart! By my crown, Suffolk!" he exclaimed to his companion, as he quitted the cottage, "she is an angel, and shall be mine."
"Not if my arm serves me truly," muttered Fenwolf, who, with his mysterious companion, had stationed himself at the window of the hut.
"Do him no injury," returned the other; "he is only to be made captive- mark that. And now to apprise Sir Thomas Wyat. We must intercept them before they reach their horses."