"Your worship's adjuration was strangely interrupted," cried the old man, crossing himself devoutly. "Saint Dunstan and Saint Christopher shield us from evil spirits!"
"A truce to your idle terrors, Adam," said Wyat. "Take these packets," he added, giving him Henry's despatches, "and guard them as you would your life. I am going on an expedition of some peril to-night, and do not choose to keep them about me. Bid the grooms have my steed in readiness an hour before midnight."
"I hope your worship is not about to ride into the forest at that hour?" said Adam, trembling. "I was told by the stout archer, whom the king dubbed Duke of Shoreditch, that he and the Duke of Richmond ventured thither last night, and that they saw a legion of demons mounted on coal-black horses, and amongst them Mark Fytton, the butcher, who was hanged a few days ago from the Curfew Tower by the king's order, and whose body so strangely disappeared. Do not go into the forest, dear Sir Thomas!"
"No more of this! " cried Wyat fiercely. "Do as I bid you, and if I join you not before noon to-morrow, proceed to Rochester, and there await my coming."
I never expect to see you again, sir! " groaned the old man, as he took his leave.
The anxious concern evinced in his behalf by his old and trusty servant was not without effect on Sir Thomas Wyat, and made him hesitate in his design; but by-and-by another access of jealous rage came on, and overwhelmed all his better resolutions. He remained within his chamber to a late hour, and then issuing forth, proceeded to the terrace at the north of the castle, where he was challenged by a sentinel, but was suffered to pass on, on giving the watch-word.
The night was profoundly dark, and the whole of the glorious prospect commanded by the terrace shrouded from view. But Wyat's object in coming thither was to gaze, for the last time, at that part of the castle which enclosed Anne Boleyn, and knowing well the situation of her apartments, he fixed his eyes upon the windows; but although numerous lights streamed from the adjoining corridor, all here was buried in obscurity.
Suddenly, however, the chamber was illumined, and he beheld Henry and Anne Boleyn enter it, preceded by a band of attendants bearing tapers. It needed not Wyat's jealousy-sharpened gaze to read, even at that distance, the king's enamoured looks, or Anne Boleyn's responsive glances. He saw that one of Henry's arms encircled her waist, while the other caressed her yielding hand. They paused. Henry bent forward, and Anne half averted her head, but not so much so as to prevent the king from imprinting a long and fervid kiss upon her lips.
Terrible was its effect upon Wyat. An adder's bite would have been less painful. His hands convulsively clutched together; his hair stood erect upon his head; a shiver ran through his frame; and he tottered back several paces. When he recovered, Henry had bidden good-night to the object of his love, and, having nearly gained the door, turned and waved a tender valediction to her. As soon as he was gone, Anne looked round with a smile of ineffable pride and pleasure at her attendants, but a cloud of curtains dropping over the window shrouded her from the sight of her wretched lover.
In a state of agitation wholly indescribable, Wyat staggered towards the edge of the terrace -- it might be with the design of flinging himself from it -- but when within a few yards of the low parapet wall defending its precipitous side, he perceived a tall dark figure standing directly in his path, and halted. Whether the object he beheld was human or not he could not determine, but it seemed of more than mortal stature. It was wrapped in a long black cloak, and wore a high conical cap on its head. Before Wyat could speak the figure addressed him.
"You desire to see Herne the Hunter," said the figure, in a deep, sepulchral tone. "Ride hence to the haunted beechtree near the marsh, at the farther side of the forest, and you will find him."
"You are Herne -- I feel it," cried Wyat. "Why go into the forest? Speak now."
And he stepped forward with the intention of grasping the figure, but it eluded him, and, with a mocking laugh, melted into the darkness.
Wyat advanced to the edge of the terrace and looked over the parapet, but he could see nothing except the tops of the tall trees springing from the side of the moat. Flying to the sentinel, he inquired whether any one had passed him, but the man returned an angry denial.
Awestricken and agitated, Wyat quitted the terrace, and, seeking his steed, mounted him, and galloped into the forest.
"If he I have seen be not indeed the fiend, he will scarcely outstrip me in the race," he cried, as his steed bore him at a furious pace up the long avenue.
The gloom was here profound, being increased by the dense masses of foliage beneath which he was riding. By the time, however, that he reached the summit of Snow Hill the moon struggled through the clouds, and threw a wan glimmer over the leafy wilderness around. The deep slumber of the woods was unbroken by any sound save that of the frenzied rider bursting through them.
Well acquainted with the forest, Wyat held on a direct course. His brain was on fire, and the fury of his career increased his fearful excitement. Heedless of all impediments, he pressed forward -- now dashing beneath overhanging boughs at the risk of his neck -- now skirting the edge of a glen where a false step might have proved fatal.
On -- on he went, his frenzy increasing each moment.
At length he reached the woody height overlooking the marshy tract that formed the limit of his ride. Once more the moon had withdrawn her lustre, and a huge indistinct black mass alone pointed out the position of the haunted tree. Around it wheeled a large white owl, distinguishable by its ghostly plumage through the gloom, like a sea- bird in a storm, and hooting bodingly as it winged its mystic flight. No other sound was heard, nor living object seen.
While gazing into the dreary expanse beneath him, Wyat for the first time since starting experienced a sensation of doubt and dread; and the warning of his old and faithful attendant rushed upon his mind. He tried to recite a prayer, but the words died away on his lips -- neither would his fingers fashion the symbol of a cross.
But even these admonitions did not restrain him. Springing from his foaming and panting steed, and taking the bridle in his hand, he descended the side of the acclivity. Ever and anon a rustling among the grass told him that a snake, with which description of reptile the spot abounded, was gliding away from him. His horse, which had hitherto been all fire and impetuosity, now began to manifest symptoms of alarm, quivered in every limb, snorted, and required to be dragged along forcibly.
When within a few paces of the tree, its enormous rifted trunk became fully revealed to him; but no one was beside it. Wyat then stood still, and cried in a loud, commanding tone, "Spirit, I summon thee! -- appear!"
At these words a sound like a peal of thunder rolled over head, accompanied by screeches of discordant laughter. Other strange and unearthly noises were heard, and amidst the din a blue phosphoric light issued from the yawning crevice in the tree, while a tall, gaunt figure, crested with an antlered helm, sprang from it. At the same moment a swarm of horribly grotesque, swart objects, looking like imps, appeared amid the branches of the tree, and grinned and gesticulated at Wyat, whose courage remained unshaken during the fearful ordeal. Not so his steed. After rearing and plunging violently, the affrighted animal broke its hold and darted off into the swamp, where it floundered and was lost.
"You have called me, Sir Thomas Wyat," said the demon, in a sepulchral tone. "I am here. What would you?"
"My name being known to you, spirit of darkness, my errand should be also," replied Wyat boldly.
"Your errand is known to me," replied the demon. "You have lost a mistress, and would regain her?"
"I would give my soul to win her back from my kingly rival," cried Wyat.
I accept your offer," rejoined the spirit. " Anne Boleyn shall be yours. Your hand upon the compact."
Wyat stretched forth his hand, and grasped that of the demon.
His fingers were compressed as if by a vice, and he felt himself dragged towards the tree, while a stifling and sulphurous vapour rose around him. A black veil fell over his head, and was rapidly twined around his brow in thick folds.
Amid yells of fiendish laughter he was then lifted from the ground, thrust into the hollow of the tree, and thence, as it seemed to him, conveyed into a deep subterranean cave.