On that same night, and just as the castle clock was on the stroke of twelve, the Earl of Surrey and the Duke of Richmond issued from the upper gate, and took their way towards Herne's Oak. The moon was shining brightly, and its beams silvered the foliage of the noble trees with which the park was studded. The youthful friends soon reached the blasted tree; but nothing was to be seen near it, and all looked so tranquil, so free from malignant influence, that the Duke of Richmond could not help laughing at his companion, telling him that the supposed vision must have been the offspring of his over-excited fancy. Angry at being thus doubted, the earl walked off, and plunged into the haunted dell. The duke followed, but though they paused for some time beneath the gnarled oak-tree, the spirit did not appear.
"And thus ends the adventure of Herne the Hunter!" laughed the duke, as they emerged from the brake. "By my halidom, Surrey, I am grievously disappointed. You must have mistaken some large stag, caught by its antlers in the branches of the oak-tree, for the demon."
"I have told you precisely what occurred," replied Surrey angrily. "Ha! there he is -- look! look!"
And he pointed to a weird figure, mounted on a steed as weird-looking as itself, galloping through the trees with extraordinary swiftness, at a little distance from them. This ghostly rider wore the antlered helmet described by Surrey, and seemed to be habited in a garb of deer-skins. Before him flew a large owl, and a couple of great black dogs ran beside him. Staring in speechless wonder at the sight, the two youths watched the mysterious being scour a glade brightly illumined by the moon, until, reaching the pales marking the confines of the Home Park, he leaped them and disappeared.
"What think you of that?" cried Surrey, as soon as he had recovered from his surprise, glancing triumphantly at the duke. "Was that the offspring of my fancy?"
"It was a marvellous sight, truly!" exclaimed Richmond. "Would we had our steeds to follow him."
"We can follow him on foot," replied the earl -- " he is evidently gone into the forest."
And they set off at a quick pace in the direction taken by the ghostly rider. Clambering the park pales, they crossed the road leading to Old Windsor, and entered that part of the forest which, in more recent times, has been enclosed and allotted to the grounds of Frogmore. Tracking a long vista, they came to a thick dell, overgrown with large oaks, at the bottom of which lay a small pool. Fleeter than his companion, and therefore somewhat in advance of him, the Earl of Surrey, as he approached this dell, perceived the spectral huntsman and his dogs standing at the edge of the water. The earl instantly shouted to him, and the horseman turning his head, shook his hand menacingly, while the hounds glared fiercely at the intruder, and displayed their fangs, but did not bark. As Surrey, however, despite this caution, continued to advance, the huntsman took a strangely shaped horn that hung by his side, and placing it to his lips, flames and thick smoke presently issued from it, and before the vapour had cleared off, he and his dogs had disappeared.. The witnesses of this marvellous spectacle crossed themselves reverently, and descended to the brink of the pool; but the numerous footprints of deer, that came there to drink, prevented them from distinguishing any marks of the steed of the ghostly hunter.
"Shall we return, Surrey?" asked the duke.
"No," replied the earl. "I am persuaded we shall see the mysterious huntsman again. You can return, if you think proper. I will go on."
Nay, I will not leave you," rejoined Richmond.
And they set off again at the same quick pace as before. Mounting a hill covered with noble beeches and elms, a magnificent view of the castle burst upon them, towering over the groves they had tracked, and looking almost like the work of enchantment. Charmed with the view, the young men continued to contemplate it for some time. They then struck off on the right, and ascended still higher, until they came to a beautiful grove of beeches cresting the hill where the equestrian statue of George the Third is now placed. Skirting this grove, they disturbed a herd of deer, which started up, and darted into the valley below.
At the foot of two fine beech-trees lay another small pool, and Surrey almost expected to see the spectral huntsman beside it.
From this spot they could discern the whole of the valley beyond, and they scanned it in the hope of perceiving the object of their search. Though not comparable to the view on the nearer side, the prospect was nevertheless exceedingly beautiful. Long vistas and glades stretched out before them, while in the far distance might be seen glittering in the moonbeams the lake or mere which in later days has received the name of Virginia Water.
While they were gazing at this scene, a figure habited like a keeper of the forest suddenly emerged from the trees at the lower end of one of the glades. Persuaded that this person had some mysterious connection with the ghostly huntsman, the earl determined to follow him, and hastily mentioning his suspicions and design to Richmond, he hurried down the hill. But before he accomplished the descent, the keeper was gone.
At length, however, on looking about, they perceived him mounting the rising ground on the left, and immediately started after him, taking care to keep out of sight. The policy of this course was soon apparent. Supposing himself no longer pursued, the keeper relaxed his pace, and the others got nearer to him.
In this way both parties went on, the keeper still hurrying forward, every now and then turning his head to see whether any one was on his track, until he came to a road cut through the trees that brought him to the edge of a descent leading to the lake. Just at this moment a cloud passed over the moon, burying all in comparative obscurity. The watchers, however, could perceive the keeper approach an ancient beech-tree of enormous growth, and strike it thrice with the short hunting-spear which he held in his grasp.
The signal remaining unanswered, he quitted the tree, and shaped his course along the side of a hill on the right. Keeping under the shelter of the thicket on the top of the same hill, Surrey and Richmond followed, and saw him direct his steps towards another beech-tree of almost double the girth of that he had just visited. Arrived at this mighty tree, he struck it with his spear, while a large owl, seated on a leafless branch, began to hoot; a bat circled the tree; and two large snakes, glistening in the moonlight, glided from its roots. As the tree was stricken for the third time, the same weird figure that the watchers had seen ride along the Home Park burst from its riften trunk, and addressed its summoner in tones apparently menacing and imperious, but whose import was lost upon the listeners. The curiosity of the beholders was roused to the highest pitch, but an undefinable awe prevented them from rushing forward.
Suddenly the demon hunter waved a pike with which he was armed, and uttered a peculiar cry, resembling the hooting of an owl. At this sound, and as if by magic, a couple of steeds, accompanied by the two hounds, started from the brake. In an instant the demon huntsman vaulted upon the hack of the horse nearest to him, and the keeper almost as quickly mounted the other. The pair then galloped off through the glen, the owl flying before them, and the hounds coursing by their side.
The two friends gazed at each other, for some time, in speechless wonder. Taking heart, they then descended to the haunted tree, but could perceive no traces of the strange being by whom it had been recently tenanted. After a while they retraced their course towards the castle, hoping they might once more encounter the wild huntsman. Nor were they disappointed. As they crossed a glen, a noble stag darted by. Close at its heels came the two black hounds, and after them the riders hurrying forward at a furious pace, their steeds appearing to breathe forth flame and smoke.
In an instant the huntsmen and hounds were gone, and the trampling of the horses died away in the distance. Soon afterwards a low sound, like the winding of a horn, broke upon the ear, and the listeners had no doubt that the buck was brought down. They hurried in the direction of the sound, but though the view was wholly unobstructed for a considerable distance, they could see nothing either of horsemen, hounds, or deer.