Henry and Suffolk, on leaving the forester's hut, took their way for a sort space along the side of the lake, and then turned into a path leading through the trees up the eminence on the left. The king was in a joyous mood, and made no attempt to conceal the passion with which the fair damsel had inspired him.
"You forget, my liege, that it is his object to withdraw your regards from the Lady Anne Boleyn," remarked Suffolk.
" I care not what his motive may be, as long as the result is so satisfactory," returned Henry. "Confess now, Suffolk, you never beheld a figure so perfect, a complexion so blooming, or eyes so bright. As to her lips, by my soul, I never tasted such."
"And your majesty is not inexperienced in such matters," laughed Suffolk. "For my own part, I was as much struck by her grace as by her beauty, and can scarcely persuade myself she can be nothing more than a mere forester's grand-daughter."
"Wolsey told me there was a mystery about her birth," rejoined Henry; "but, pest on it; her beauty drove all recollection of the matter out of my head. I will go back, and question her now."
"Your majesty forgets that your absence from the castle will occasion surprise, if not alarm," said Suffolk. "The mystery will keep till to- morrow."
"Tut, tut! -- I will return," said the king perversely. And Suffolk, knowing his wilfulness, and that all remonstrance would prove fruitless, retraced his steps with him. They had not proceeded far when they perceived a female figure at the bottom of the ascent, just where the path turned off on the margin of the lake.
"As I live, there she is!" exclaimed the king joyfully. "She has divined my wishes, and is come herself to tell me her history."
And he sprang forward, while Mabel advanced rapidly towards him.
They met half-way, and Henry would have caught her in his arms, but she avoided him, exclaiming, in a tone of confusion and alarm, "Thank Heaven, I have found you, sire!"
"Thank Heaven, too, sweetheart!" rejoined Henry. "I would not hide when you are the seeker. So you know me -- ha?
"I knew you at first," replied Mabel confusedly. "I saw you at the great hunting party; and, once beheld, your majesty is not easily forgotten."
"Ha! by Saint George! you turn a compliment as soothly as the most practised dame at court," cried Henry, catching her hand.
"Beseech your majesty, release me!" returned Mabel, struggling to get free. "I did not follow you on the light errand you suppose, but to warn you of danger. Before you quitted my grandsire's cottage I told you this part of the forest was haunted by plunderers and evil beings, and apprehensive lest some mischance might befall you, I opened the window softly to look after you -"
"And you overheard me tell the Duke of Suffolk how much smitten I was with your beauty, ha? " interrupted the king, squeezing her hand -" and how resolved I was to make you mine -- ha! sweetheart?"
"The words I heard were of very different import, my liege," rejoined Mabel. "You were menaced by miscreants, who purposed to waylay you before you could reach your steed."
"Let them come," replied Henry carelessly; "they shall pay for their villainy. How many were there?"
"Two, sire," answered Mabel; "but one of them was Herne, the weird hunter of the forest. He said he would summon his band to make you captive. What can your strong arm, even aided by that of the Duke of Suffolk, avail against numbers?"
"Captive! ha!" exclaimed the king. "Said the knave so?
He did, sire," replied Mabel; "and I knew it was Herne by his antlered helm."
"There is reason in what the damsel says, my liege," interposed Suffolk. "If possible, you had better avoid an encounter with the villains."
"My hands itch to give them a lesson," rejoined Henry. "But I will be ruled by you. God's death! I will return to-morrow, and hunt them down like so many wolves."
"Where are your horses, sire?" asked Mabel.
"Tied to a tree at the foot of the hill," replied Henry. "But I have attendants midway between this spot and Snow Hill."
"This way, then!" said Mabel, breaking from him, and darting into a narrow path among the trees.
Henry ran after her, but was not agile enough to overtake her. At length she stopped.
"If your majesty will pursue this path," she cried, "you will come to an open space amid the trees, when, if you will direct your course towards a large beech-tree on the opposite side, you will find another narrow path, which will take you where you desire to go."
"But I cannot go alone," cried Henry.
Mabel, however, slipped past him, and was out of sight in an instant.
Henry looked as if he meant to follow her, but Suffolk ventured to arrest him.
"Do not tarry here longer, my gracious liege," said the duke. "Danger is to be apprehended, and the sooner you rejoin your attendants the better. Return with them, if you please, but do not expose yourself further now."
Henry yielded, though reluctantly, and they walked on in silence. Ere long they arrived at the open space described by Mabel, and immediately perceived the large beech-tree, behind which they found the path. By this time the moon had arisen, and as they emerged upon the marsh they easily discovered a track, though not broader than a sheep-walk, leading along its edge. As they hurried across it, Suffolk occasionally cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, but he saw nothing to alarm him. The whole tract of marshy land on the left was hidden from view by a silvery mist.
In a few minutes the king and his companion gained firmer ground, and ascending the gentle elevation on the other side of the marsh, made their way to a little knoll crowned by a huge oak, which commanded a fine view of the lake winding through the valley beyond. Henry, who was a few yards in advance of his companion, paused at a short distance from the free, and being somewhat over-heated, took off his cap to wipe his brow, laughingly observing -