About ten o'clock in the night under consideration, Surrey and Richmond, accompanied by the Duke of Shoreditch, and half a dozen other archers, set out from the castle, and took their way along the great park, in the direction of the lake.
They had not ridden far, when they were overtaken by two horsemen who, as far as they could be discerned in that doubtful light, appeared stalwart personages, and well mounted, though plainly attired. The new-comers very unceremoniously joined them.
"There are ill reports of the park, my masters," said the foremost of these persons to Surrey, " and we would willingly ride with you across it"
"But our way may not be yours, friend," replied Surrey, who did not altogether relish this proposal. "We are not going farther than the lake."
"Our road lies in that direction," replied the other, " and, if you please, we will bear you company as far as we go. Come, tell me frankly," he added, after a pause," are you not in search of Herne the Hunter?"
"Why do you ask, friend?" rejoined the earl somewhat angrily.
"Because if so," replied the other, "I shall be right glad to join you, and so will my friend, Tony Cryspyn, who is close behind me. I have an old grudge to settle with this Herne, who has more than once attacked me, and I shall be glad to pay it."
"If you will take my advice, Hugh Dacre, you will ride on, and leave the achievement of the adventure to these young galliards," interposed Cryspyn.
"Nay, by the mass! that shall never be," rejoined Dacre, "if they have no objection to our joining them. If they have, they have only to say so, and we will go on."
"I will be plain with you, my masters," said Surrey. "We are determined this night, as you have rightly conjectured, to seek out Herne the Hunter; and we hope to obtain such clue to him as will ensure his capture. If, therefore, you are anxious to join us, we shall be glad of your aid. But you must be content to follow, and not lead -- and to act as you are directed - or you will only be in the way, and we would rather dispense with your company."
"We are content with the terms -- are we not, Tony?" said Dacre.
His companion answered somewhat sullenly in the affirmative.
"And now that the matter is arranged, may I ask when you propose to go? "he continued.
"We are on our way to a hut on the lake, where we expect a companion to join us," replied Surrey.
"What! Tristram Lyndwood's cottage?" demanded Dacre.
"Ay," replied the earl, "and we hope to recover his fair granddaughter from the power of the demon."
"Ha! say you so?" cried Dacre; "that were a feat, indeed!"
The two strangers then rode apart for a few moments, and conversed together in a low tone, during which Richmond expressed his doubts of them to Surrey, adding that he was determined to get rid of them.
The new-comers, however, were not easily shaken off. As soon as they perceived the duke's design, they stuck more pertinaciously to him and the earl than before, and made it evident they would not be dismissed.
By this time they had passed Spring Hill, and were within a mile of the valley in which lay the marsh, when a cry for help was heard in the thicket on the left, and the troop immediately halted. The cry was repeated, and Surrey, bidding the others follow him, dashed off in the direction of the sound.
Presently, they perceived two figures beneath the trees, whom they found, on a nearer approach, were Sir Thomas Wyat, with Mabel in a state of insensibility in his arms.
Dismounting by the side of his friend, Surrey hastily demanded how he came there, and what had happened?
"It is too long a story to relate now," said Wyat; "but the sum of it is, that I have escaped, by the aid of this damsel, from the clutches of the demon. Our escape was effected on horseback, and we had to plunge into the lake. The immersion deprived my fair preserver of sensibility, so that as soon as I landed, and gained a covert where I fancied myself secure, I dismounted, and tried to restore her. While I was thus occupied, the steed I had brought with me broke his bridle, and darted off into the woods. After a while, Mabel opened her eyes, but she was so weak that she could not move, and I was fain to make her a couch in the fern, in the hope that she would speedily revive. But the fright and suffering had been too much for her, and a succession of fainting-fits followed, during which I thought she would expire. This is all. Now, let us prepare a litter for her, and convey her where proper assistance can be rendered."
Meanwhile, the others had come up, and Hugh Dacre, flinging himself from his horse, and pushing Surrey somewhat rudely aside, advanced towards Mabel, and, taking her hand, said, in a voice of some emotion, "Alas! poor girl! I did not expect to meet thee again in this state."
"You knew her, then?" said Surrey.
Dacre muttered an affirmative.
"Who is this man? "asked Wyat of the earl.
"I know him not," answered Surrey. "He joined us on the road hither."
"I am well known to Sir Thomas Wyat," replied Dacre, in a significant tone, "as he will avouch when I recall certain matters to his mind. But do not let us lose time here. This damsel claims our first attention. She must be conveyed to a place of safety, and where she can be well tended. We can then return to search for Herne."
Upon this, a litter of branches were speedily made, and Mabel being laid upon it, the simple conveyance was sustained by four of the archers. The little cavalcade then quitted the thicket, and began to retrace its course towards the castle. Wyat had been accommodated with a horse by one of the archers, and rode in a melancholy manner by the side of the litter.
They had got back nearly as far as the brow of Spring Hill, when a horseman, in a wild garb, and mounted on a coal black steed, lashed suddenly and at a furious pace, out of the trees on the right. He made towards the litter, over-turning Sir Thomas Wyat, and before any opposition could be offered him, seized the inanimate form of Mabel, and placing her before him on his steed, dashed off as swiftly as he came, and with a burst of loud, exulting laughter.