Mabel's heart fluttered violently at the usher's announcement, and for a moment the colour deserted her cheek, while the next instant she was covered with blushes. As to poor Patch, feeling that his indiscretion might place him in great jeopardy and seriously affect his master, to whom he was devotedly attached, he cast a piteous and imploring look at his antagonist, but was answered only by a derisive laugh, coupled with an expressive gesture to intimate that a halter would be his fate. Fearful that mischief might ensue, the good-natured Simon Quanden got out of his chair and earnestly besought Will not to carry matters too far; but the jester remained implacable.
It was not unusual with Henry to visit the different offices of the castle and converse freely and familiarly with the members of his household, but it was by no means safe to trust to the continuance of his good humour, or in the slightest degree to presume upon it. It is well known that his taste for variety of character often led him, like the renowned Caliph Haroun Al Raschid, to mix with the lower classes of his subjects in disguise, at which times many extraordinary adventures are said to have befallen him. His present visit to the kitchen, therefore, would have occasioned no surprise to its occupants if it had not occurred so soon after the cardinal's arrival. But it was this circumstance, in fact, that sent him thither. The intelligence brought by Wolsey of the adjournment of the court for three days, under the plea of giving the queen time for her allegations, was so unlooked for by Henry that he quitted the cardinal in high displeasure, and was about to repair to Anne Boleyn, when he encountered Bouchier, who told him that Mabel Lyndwood had been brought to the castle, and her grandsire arrested. The information changed Henry's intentions at once, and he proceeded with Bouchier and some other attendants to the kitchen, where he was given to understand he should find the damsel.
Many a furtive glance was thrown at the king, for no one dared openly to regard him as he approached the forester's fair granddaughter. But he tarried only a moment beside her, chucked her under the chin, and, whispering a word or two in her ear that heightened her blushes, passed on to the spot where the two jesters were standing.
"What dost thou here, knave?" he said to Will Sommers.
"I might rather ask that question of your majesty," replied Will; "and I would do so but that I require not to be told"
"I have come to see what passeth in my household," replied the king, throwing himself into the chair lately occupied by the chief cook. "Ah, Hob and Nob, my merry rascals," he cried, patting the turnspits, who ran towards him and thrust their noses against his hand, " ye are as gamesome and loving as ever, I see. Give me a manchet for them, Master Cook, and let not the proceedings in the kitchen be stayed for my presence. I would not have my supper delayed, or the roasts spoiled, for any false ceremony. And now, Will, what hast thou to say that thou lookest so hard at me?"
"I have a heavy charge to bring against this knave, an' please your majesty," replied Will Sommers, pointing to Patch.
"What! hath he retorted upon thee too sharply? "replied the king, laughing. "If so, challenge him to the combat, and settle the grievance with thy lathen dagger. But refer not the matter to me. I am no judge in fools' quarrels."
"Your own excepted," muttered Will. "This is not a quarrel that can be so adjusted," he added aloud. "I charge this rascal Patch with speaking disrespectfully of your highness in the hearing of the whole kitchen. And I also charge his master the cardinal with having secreted in his cellars at Hampton a vast amount of treasure, obtained by extortion, privy dealings with foreign powers, and other iniquitous practices, and which ought of right to find its way to your royal exchequer."
"'And which shall find its way thither, if thou dost not avouch a fable," replied the king.
"Your majesty shall judge," rejoined Will. And he repeated the story which he had just before related.
"Can this be true?" exclaimed Henry at its close.
"It is false, your highness, every word of it," cried Patch, throwing himself at the king's feet, "except so far as relates to our visits to the cellar, where, I shame to speak it, we drank so much that our senses clean forsook us. As to my indiscreet speech touching your majesty, neither disrespect nor disloyalty were intended by it. I was goaded to the rejoinder by the sharp sting of this hornet."
"The matter of the treasure shall be inquired into without delay," said Henry. "As to the quarrel, it shall be settled thus. Get both of you upon that table. A flour-bag shall be given to each; and he who is first knocked off shall be held vanquished."
The king's judgment was received with as much applause as dared be exhibited by the hearers; and in an instant the board was cleared, and a couple of flour-bags partly filled delivered to the combatants by Simon Quanden, who bestirred himself with unwonted activity on the occasion.
Leaping upon the table, amid the smothered mirth of the assemblage, the two jesters placed themselves opposite each other, and grinned such comical defiance that the king roared with laughter. After a variety of odd movements and feints on either side, Patch tried to bring down his adversary by a tremendous two-handed blow; but in dealing it, the weight of the hag dragged him forward, and well-nigh pitched him head foremost upon the floor. As it was, he fell on his face upon the table, and in this position received several heavy blows upon the prominent part of his back from Will Sommers. Ere long, however, he managed to regain his legs, and, smarting with pain, attacked his opponent furiously in his turn. For a short space fortune seemed to favour him. His bag had slightly burst, and the flour, showering from it with every blow, well-nigh blinded his adversary, whom he drove to the very edge of the table. At this critical juncture Will managed to bring down his bag full upon his opponent's sconce, and the force of the blow bursting it, Patch was covered from crown to foot with flour, and blinded in his turn. The appearance of the combatants was now so exquisitely ridiculous, that the king leaned back in his chair to indulge his laughter, and the mirth of the spectators could no longer be kept within decorous limits. The very turnspits barked in laughing concert.