Windsor Oaks Stories
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The re-edited tales of folks surrounded by oaks and other trees are from the book Windsor Castle by William Harrison Ainsworth.
THE 21st of April in 1529 King Henry VIII had reigned for twenty years in England. On a very lovely evening a fair youth who looked somewhat like a page, was leaning over the terrace wall on the north side of Windsor Castle and gazed at the magnificent scene before him. On his right stretched the broad green expanse forming the Home Park. It was studded with noble trees. They were mainly old oaks to be proud of, and thorns as old as the oaks, wide-spreading beeches, tall elms, and hollies.
The trees were lovely to look at. At the end of what the page saw, stood a mighty broad-armed oak in the middle of an open space that was covered with the greenest sward. The wide-reaching boughs of the oak had nearly lost their leaves.
Not far from it was a thicket and a long glade formed by a natural avenue of oaks. Across it deer were passing.
On the left the page saw the town of Windsor, many times smaller than it is now and far prettier to look at. It consisted almost wholly of a long straggling row of houses, chequered black and white, skirting the west and south sides of the castle by the silver windings of the river.
The river could be traced for miles as it reflected the glowing hues of the sky. By the College of Eton and the well-cultivated country beyond it it flowed along past villages, churches, old halls, monasteries, and abbeys.
The youth could not be more than fifteen, perhaps not so much, but he was tall and well-grown and came from Oxford, where he had completed his studies. He looked thoughtful and intelligent. His dress was rich adn worthy of a nobleman, and he was armed with a dagger and a rapier.
As he moved along, the sound of voices chanting vespers arose from Saint George's Chapel.
A captain came up to him and cried,
"Acting as your representative, I have given all needful directions for his majesty's reception tomorrow. I have given orders to the groom of the chambers for the lodging of your cousin, mistress Anne Boleyn. She will be lodged as royally as if she were queen of England. The queen's own apartments are assigned her."
"It is well," rejoined the noble youth. "And you have also provided for the reception of the pope's legate?"
The captain bowed.
"And for Cardinal Wolsey?"
The captain bowed again.
"I have done all as if you had done it yourself. I summoned together the dean and canons of the College of St. George and many others and told them what to do. And now, having fulfilled what your lordship wanted, I am content to resign my post as vice-chamberlain."
"That will not be for an hour, at the least," replied the earl; "for I intend to take a solitary ramble in the park."
"Then let me caution you against going near Herne's Oak. It is said that Herne the Hunter walks at nightfall and scares all those who cross his path, if he does not injure them. Don't neglect my caution about Herne. I have heard strange stories about him lately, and should not care to go near the tree after dark."
The earl laughed somewhat sceptically and went into the park. He struck into a footpath across the park. The path brought him near a hollow filled with thorns, hollies, and underwood, and overhung by mighty oaks. He plunged into it and soon reached the deepest part of it. Here could scarcely see a yard before him. Still he pressed on.
Suddenly he was startled by a blue phosphoric light streaming through the bushes on the left. Looking up he saw the foot of an enormous oak; its giant roots protruded like twisted snakes. And there was also a wild spectre, much like a human to look at. It was clothed in the skins of deer. On its head there was a helmet formed of the skull of a stag. From his left arm hung a heavy and rusty-looking chain which burnt with phosphoric fire. On his right wrist was perched a large horned owl with staring eyes.
Impressed, the young earl could scarcely repress a cry. Crossing himself, he repeated a prayer against evil spirits, and as he uttered it, the light was extinguished and the spectral figure vanished. Then came a horrible burst of laughter and a fearful wail, and all was silent.
Up to this moment the young earl had stood still, as if spell-bound. Now it changed. The full moon was rising as he ran off. Throwing a shuddering glance at the hollow, he was about to hurry towards the castle when a large, lightning-scathed, and solitary oak attracted his attention. It stood a little way away from him.
That was the tree connected with the legend of Herne the Hunter. It was the tree which the captain had warned him against coming near. Now the young nobleman recalled the caution.
Beneath the oak he now perceived a figure who shouted to him the same moment as he caught sight of him. It was a young man, a keeper of the forest armed with a short wood-knife. He was attended by a large savage-looking staghound. Now his dark eyes lighted up with a very sinister expression.
"Have you seen anything?" he demanded.
"I have seen Herne the Hunter himself, or the fiend in his likeness," replied the young earl, and briefly related what he had seen.
"Ay. You have seen that nightly hunter. My dog crouched at my feet and whined, and I knew some evil thing was at hand." He exclaimed, "She does it again."
The earl glanced in the same direction. But nothing was visible, not to him.
"Don't you see him?" cried the latter at length, in thrilling accents. "He is circling the tree, and blasting it. There! he passes us now don't you see him?"
"No," replied the young earl.
They ran away.
"So you did not see him?" said the exhausted keeper as he wiped thick drops of sweat from his brow.
"Not this time," replied Surrey.
"I myself have seen him before, but never as he appeared tonight," said the other.
"You are a keeper of the forest, I presume?" said the young nobleman. "I am the Earl of Surrey. I have only just completed my studies. My attendants are waiting for me at the Garter - it's a snug little hostel - and if you will accompany me there, I will give you a cup of good lemonade after the fright."
It gladdened the forest-keeper to be invited. They walked on in silence till they came down the hill near Henry VIII's Gate.
The earl and his companion went down the hill till they came in sight of the snug little hostel. They listened at the door. Inside, men cried to others, filling their horns,
"Come! A cup of stout Windsor lemonade."
A butcher there said he did not like what the king was up to.
"Mistress Anne Boleyn is coming to Windsor with the king and the knights-companions tomorrow - The king is crazed! He would sacrifice his rightful consort to his unlawful passion; and you support the tyrant!"
"Seize him, masters!" cried a duke that was present too.
"I have felled an ox with a blow of my fist before this," snarled the butcher.
Awed, the bystanders kept aloof. But an attendant advanced and received a blow from an ox-like fist. It stretched him at full length on the ground.
Another fellow rushed forward, closing with the butcher before he could strike one more blow, grappled with him, and held him fast till he was secured and his arms tied behind him.
Then it was agreed that the outspoken fellow was to be taken to the Curfew Tower at the Castle.
They had to knock for some time against the stout oak door before any notice was taken of the summons. Next they got admission to a large octangular chamber with a vaulted roof.
"A night's solitary confinement in darkness in this place will be of service," said a duke, gazing around.
NEXT DAY all were clad in holiday attire, and practiced shooting. The duke shot very well, and never missed the bulls-eye; but the keeper of the forest was even better: three times he split the duke's shafts as they stuck in the mark.
"Well done!" cried the duke, "why, you shoot as bravely as Herne the Hunter."
"He must have learnt the trick from Herne himself," cried one of the bystanders.
The keeper looked fiercely round, stopped shooting, and soon disappeared among the crowd.
Now the sound of trumpets was heard, and a big and dressed up retinue came into view. In a litter covered with cloth of gold sat Anne Boleyn. Her features were nice, and she had rare powers of conversation and wit. But she also had a strong tendency to coquetry.
The king's jester was around too. His look was cunning and sarcastic. He was a great favourite with the king. He said,
"Cross not the lion's path; take a friendly hint from the jackal."
A duke told,
"A marvellous adventure befell the earl of Surrey in the Home Park at Windsor last night," he said. "He declares he has seen the demon hunter, Herne."
"Then let him relate the adventure to us himself," replied a fair woman. "Hopefully, no one can tell a story so well as the hero of it."
The duke signed to the youthful earl, and a lady called Geraldine listened to his tale with breathless interest.
"Heaven shield us from evil spirits!" she exclaimed.
"Herne was a keeper in the forest. He committed some heinous crime and hanged himself from a branch of the oak which still bears his name," replied the earl. "For this unrighteous act he cannot get rest, but is condemned to wander through the forest at midnight, where he wreaks vengeance in blasting the trees."
"The legend I have heard differs from yours," said the duke of Richmond: "The spirit which the forest is haunted by, is a wood-demon that assumes the shape of the ghostly hunter and seeks to tempt or terrify the keepers to sell their souls to him."
The dressed up cavalcade ascended Thames Street and were welcomed with acclamations and rejoicing.
Now Henry VIII came along in a robe of crimson velvet etc. He was in his thirty-eighth year, and though somewhat overgrown and heavy, he looked handsome and manly with his too small eyes and a mouth that was a bit too little. He had many and grave faults, but "Greensleeves" was not one of them.
He entered Windsor. Anne Boleyn blushed. He attended to the case of the outspoken butcher,
"So, fellow, you have dared to speak disrespectfully of us ha!" cried Henry.
I have spoken the truth," insisted the butcher. Turning to Ann Boleyn he added, "You yourself shall one day stand in as much peril of your life as I do. You will then remember my end."
Away with him!" cried Henry, and they killed the innocent man.
"I have resolved to put away my present queen, and to take another consort."
A murmur of applause followed.
"Your majesty is too generous," replied Anne, kissing his hand.
"Not a whit, sweetheart not a whit," replied Henry, tenderly raising her; "this is but a slight mark of my goodwill."
Anne took up her lute, and sang two or three French songs with so much skill and grace, that Henry, who was passionately fond of music, was quite enraptured. Then he reluctantly withdrew, and Anne retired with her ladies to an inner apartment.
Later that day, on returning to the royal lodgings, Henry went in search of his favourite, Lady Anne. He found her walking with her dames, and after that they went to bed.
Next morning there was a great banquet.
All looked so tranquil, so free from malignant influence. The Duke of Richmond could not help laughing at his companion, telling him that the vision must have been the offspring of an over-excited fancy.
Angry at being thus doubted, the earl walked off and plunged into the haunted dell. The duke followed. They paused for some time beneath the gnarled oak-tree.
"Thus ends the adventure of Herne the Hunter!" laughed the duke. "I am grievously disappointed. You must have mistaken some large stag for the demon."
"I told you what happened," replied Surrey angrily. "But look! look!"
At that point something galloped through the trees with unusual speed a little way away from them. They saw a large owl and a couple of great black dogs. The two youths kept staring in speechless wonder for a while.
"What do you think of that?" cried Surrey, glancing triumphantly at the duke. "Was that the offspring of my fancy?"
"A marvellous sight!" exclaimed the other.
"We can follow the dogs on foot," replied the earl "into the forest." And they set off.
They crossed the road that led to Old Windsor, and came to a thick dell. It was overgrown with large oaks, and at the bottom of the dell lay a small pool. The Earl of Surrey saw the dogs at the edge of the water and called out while the hounds glared fiercely, showing their fangs. But they did not bark.
Surrey, however, continued towards them.
Someone that was there too, took a horn, flames and thick smoke issued from it, and before the vapour had cleared off, he and the dogs were gone.
"Shall we return, Surrey?" asked the duke.
"No," replied the earl. "You can return, if you think proper. I will go on."
"I won't leave you," said Richmond.
They set off again. Mounting a hill covered with beeches and elms, they went still higher, till they came to a beautiful grove of beeches. They were cresting the hill in a handsome way. There the two earls disturbed a herd of deer.
At the foot of two fine beech-trees was another small pool. While they were gazing at it and its surroundings, a figure garbed like a forest keeper suddenly emerged from the trees. The earl determined to follow him. Both earls saw him mounting a rising ground. They started after him, taking care to keep out of sight, and soon got nearer to him. They saw the keeper approach an ancient, huge beech-tree and strike it thrice with a short hunting-spear.
Sheltered by the thicket on the top of the same hill, Surrey and Richmond followed. Now they saw him walk towards another beech-tree; its trunk was almost twice as wide as the one he had just left. He struck the second beech 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, slid from its roots.
As the tree was stricken for the third time, the same figure that the watchers had seen ride along the Home Park came out from its riften trunk and waved a pike he was armed with, and uttered a peculiar cry that resembled the hooting of an owl. At this sound a couple of steeds, accompanied by the two hounds, started from the brake. In an instant the demon huntsman vaulted on 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 running by their side.
The two friends gazed at each other for some time in speechless wonder. After a while they went back towards the castle. As they crossed a glen, a noble stag darted by. Close at its heels came the two black hounds, and after them the riders at a furious pace, their steeds seemed to breathe flame and smoke.
In an instant the huntsmen and hounds were gone. The trampling of the horses died away in the distance. Soon afterwards there came a low sound, like the winding of a horn. The listeners had no doubt that the buck was brought down.
SURREY and Richmond agreed to say nothing at the time of what had happened.
Next day at a gathering, the fair Geraldine mentioned to the sombre-looking Surrey; "You must have seen Herne the Hunter again. Confess now, you have been in the forest."
"I will confess anything you please," answered Surrey smartly.
"There is no need for explanation," rejoined Surrey.
The Fair Geraldine; "We will ourselves venture into the forest, and try whether we can have a meeting with this wild huntsman. Shall we go tonight?" She could not suppress a slight laugh. "I should trust the most in a relic I own It was given by a monk to my ancestor, Luigi Geraldi of Florence. From him it descended to me. You shall prove it, if you choose. I will give you the relic if you promise never to part with it to friend or foe."
It was a small cross of gold. "This cross encloses the relic," she continued; "wear it, and may it protect you from all ill!" Surrey's pale cheek glowed as he took the gift.
"I would have given half my dukedom to be favoured in this way," said Richmond moodily and walked towards Lady Anne.
Soon afterwards the Lady Anne and her dames retired. While the court was breaking up, the two young nobles strolled forth to the terrace at the north of the castle. There they talked over the mysterious event of the night before.
"I cannot help suspecting that the keeper we saw with the demon hunter was one I came across the first time," remarked the earl. "We could ask whether he was at home last night, from the host of the Garter."
Richmond agreed, and the two of them went to the place.
A man called Honest Bryan was sitting on a bench before the dwelling with a flagon of his own lemonade beside him. He told them that the keeper, called Morgan Fenwolf, lived in a small cottage by the river-side. It was not far from the bridge, and if it pleased them, Brian would guide them to it himself. They gladly accepted his offer.
"Do you know anything of this Fenwolf?" asked Surrey, as they walked toward the cottage.
"Nothing particular," replied Bryan. "There are some strange reports about him, but I don't believe them. But people do say that Morgan Fenwolf is in league with Herne the Hunter."
Richmond exchanged a look with his friend.
"Folks say strange sights have been seen in the forest lately," pursued Bryan. "The keepers used to talk of Herne the Hunter when I was a lad, but I believe it was only a tale to frighten deer-stealers."
Neither Surrey nor Richmond made any remark.
They reached a small wooden cottage on the bank of the river, about a bow-shot from the bridge. The door was opened by Bryan. They found no one within except an old wrinkled woman.
"Where is your son?" demanded the duke.
"On his walk in the forest," replied the old crone bluntly.
"What time did he leave?" asked Surrey.
"An hour before daybreak."
"If she speaks the truth, you must be mistaken," observed Richmond in a whisper to his friend.
"I don't believe her," replied Surrey, in the same tone. "Show us his chamber, dame."
The old crone sullenly complied. She threw open a side door, disclosed an inner apartment where there was a small bed, a couple of fishing-nets, a hunting-spear, and an old cross-bow. Then they were caught by surprise. With a fierce barking, Fenwolf's large black staghound Bawsey burst through the door and rushed furiously towards Surrey. He drew his dagger to defend himself, but it proved to be needless: Bawsey's fierceness suddenly changed. With a terrified howl, she retreated from the room with her tail between her legs. The old woman cried in surprise.
"Lord help us!" exclaimed Bryan; "was ever the like of that seen? You must have a strange mastery over dogs."
"The magic of the relic is approved," observed Surrey.
"It would seem so," replied the duke.
The old woman now asked whether her son should attend on them when he came back from the forest.
"The king is about to have a grand hunting-party the day after tomorrow," observed Surrey, "and we wished to give your son some instructions in the matter. But they can be delivered to another keeper."
They departed with Bryan, and went back to the castle.
Ainsworth William Harrison. Windsor Castle. London: Henry Colburn, 1844.
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