After a pause of a few minutes, the cardinal was turning away in extreme disappointment, when a small skiff, rowed by a female hand, shot round an angle of the lake and swiftly approached them. A glance from Patch would have told Wolsey, had he required any such information, that this was the forester's granddaughter. Her beauty quite ravished him, and drew from him an exclamation of wonder and delight. Features regular, exquisitely moulded, and of a joyous expression, a skin dyed like a peach by the sun, but so as to improve rather than impair its hue; eyes bright, laughing, and blue as a summer sky; ripe, ruddy lips, and pearly teeth; and hair of a light and glossy brown, constituted the sum of her attractions. Her sylph-like figure was charmingly displayed by the graceful exercise on which she was engaged, and her small hands, seemingly scarcely able to grasp an oar, impelled the skiff forwards with marvellous velocity, and apparently without much exertion on her part.
Unabashed by the presence of the strangers, though Wolsey's attire could leave her in no doubt as to his high ecclesiastical dignity, she sprang ashore at the landing-place, and fastened her bark to the side of the boathouse.
"You are Mabel Lyndwood, I presume, fair maiden?" inquired the cardinal, in his blandest tones.
"Such is my name, your grace," she replied; "for your garb tells me I am addressing Cardinal Wolsey."
The cardinal graciously inclined his head.
"Chancing to ride in this part of the forest," he said, "and having heard of your beauty, I came to see whether the reality equalled the description, and I find it far transcends it."
Mabel blushed deeply, and cast down her eyes.
"Would that Henry could see her now!" thought the cardinal, "Anne Boleyn's reign were nigh at an end.--How long have you dwelt in this cottage, fair maid?" he added aloud.
"My grandsire, Tristram Lyndwood, has lived here fifty years and more," replied Mabel, "but I have only been its inmate within these few weeks. Before that time I lived at Chertsey, under the care of one of the lay sisters of the monastery there--Sister Anastasia."
"And your parents--where are they?" asked the cardinal curiously.
"Alas! your grace, I have none," replied Mabel with a sigh. "Tristram Lyndwood is my only living relative. He used to come over once a month to see me at Chertsey--and latterly, finding his dwelling lonely, for he lost the old dame who tended it for him, he brought me to dwell with him. Sister Anastasia was loth to part with me--and I was grieved to leave her--but I could not refuse my grandsire."
"Of a surety not," replied the cardinal musingly, and gazing hard at her. "And you know nothing of your parents?"
"Little beyond this," replied Mabel:-" My father was a keeper of the forest, and being unhappily gored by a stag, perished of the wound--for a hurt from a hart's horn, as your grace knows, is certain death; and my mother pined after him and speedily followed him to the grave. I was then placed by my grandsire with Sister Anastasia, as I have just related--and this is all my history."
"A simple yet a curious one," said Wolsey, still musing. "You are the fairest maid of low degree I ever beheld. You saw the king at the chase the other day, Mabel?"
"Truly, did I, your grace," she replied, her eyes brightening and her colour rising; "and a right noble king he is."
"And as gentle and winning as he is goodly to look upon," said Wolsey, smiling.
"Report says otherwise," rejoined Mabel.
"Report speaks falsely," cried Wolsey; "I know him well, and he is what I describe him."
"I am glad to hear it," replied Mabel; "and I must own I formed the same opinion myself--for the smile he threw upon me was one of the sweetest and kindliest I ever beheld."
"Since you confess so much, fair maiden," rejoined Wolsey, "I will be equally frank, and tell you it was from the king's own lips I heard of your beauty."
"Your grace! " she exclaimed.
"Well, well," said Wolsey, smiling, " if the king is bewitched, I cannot marvel at it. And now, good day, fair maiden; you will hear more of me."
"Your grace will not refuse me your blessing? "said Mabel.
"Assuredly not, my child," replied Wolsey, stretching his hands over her. "All good angels and saints bless you, and hold you in their keeping. Mark my words: a great destiny awaits you; but in all changes, rest assured you will find a friend in Cardinal Wolsey."
"Your grace overwhelms me with kindness," cried Mabel; nor can I conceive how I have found an interest in your eyes--unless Sister Anastasia or Father Anslem, of Chertsey Abbey, may have mentioned me to you."
"You have found a more potent advocate with me than either Sister Anastasia or Father Anselm," replied Wolsey; "and now, farewell."
And turning the head of his mule, he rode slowly away.
On the same day there was a great banquet in the castle, and, as usual, Wolsey took his station on the right of the sovereign, while the papal legate occupied a place on the left. Watching a favourable opportunity, Wolsey observed to Henry that he had been riding that morning in the forest, and had seen the loveliest damsel that eyes ever fell upon.
"Ah! by our Lady! and who may she be?" asked the king curiously.
"She can boast little in regard to birth, being grandchild to an old forester," replied Wolsey; "but your majesty saw her at the hunting party the other day."
"Ah, now I bethink me of her," said Henry. "A comely damsel, in good sooth."
"I know not where her match is to be found," cried the cardinal. "Would your majesty had seen her skim over the lake in a fairy boat managed by herself, as I beheld her this morning. You would have taken her for a water-sprite, except that no water-sprite was half so beautiful."
"You speak in raptures, cardinal," cried Henry. "I must see this damsel again. Where does she dwell? I have heard, but it has slipped my memory."
"In a hut near the great lake," replied Wolsey. "There is some mystery attached to her birth, which I have not yet fathomed."
"Leave me to unriddle it," replied the king laughingly.
And he turned to talk on other subjects to Campeggio, but Wolsey felt satisfied that the device was successful. Nor was he mistaken. As Henry retired from the banquet,he motioned the Duke of Suffolk towards him, and said, in an undertone "I shall go forth at dusk to-morrow even in disguise, and shall require your attendance."
"On a love affair? " asked the duke, in the same tone.
Perchance," replied Henry; "but I will explain myself more fully anon."
This muttered colloquy was overheard by Patch, and faithfully reported by him to the cardinal.
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