by J. Walker McSpadden
CHAPTER I How Robin Hood Became an Outlaw
CHAPTER II How Robin Hood Met Little John
CHAPTER III How Robin Hood Turned Butcher, and Entered the Sheriff's Service
CHAPTER IV How Little John Entered the Sheriff's Service
CHAPTER V How the Sheriff Lost Three Good Servants, and Found Them Again
CHAPTER VI How Robin Hood Met Will Scarlett
CHAPTER VII How Robin Hood Met Friar Tuck
CHAPTER VIII How Allan-a-Dale's Wooing Was Prospered
CHAPTER IX How the Widow's Three Sons Were Rescued
CHAPTER X How a Beggar Filled the Public Eye
CHAPTER XI How Robin Hood Fought Guy of Gisbourne
CHAPTER XII How Maid Marion Came Back to Sherwood Forest; Also, How Robin Hood Came Before Queen Eleanor
CHAPTER XIII How the Outlaws Shot in King Harry's Tourney
CHAPTER XIV How Robin Hood Was Sought of the Tinker
CHAPTER XV How Robin Hood Was Tanned of the Tanner
CHAPTER XVI How Robin Hood Met Sir Richard of the Lea
CHAPTER XVII How the Bishop Was Dined
CHAPTER XVIII How the Bishop Went Outlaw-Hunting
CHAPTER XIX How the Sheriff Held Another Shooting Match
CHAPTER XX How Will Stutely Was Rescued
CHAPTER XXI How Sir Richard of the Lea Repaid His Debt
CHAPTER XXII How King Richard Came to Sherwood Forest
CHAPTER XXIII How Robin Hood and Maid Marion Were Wed
CHAPTER XXIV How Robin Hood Met His Death
HOW ROBIN HOOD BECAME AN OUTLAW
List and hearken, gentlemen, That be of free-born blood, I shall you tell of a good yeoman, His name was Robin Hood.
Robin was a proud outlaw, While as he walked on the ground. So courteous an outlaw as he was one Was never none else found.
In the days of good King Harry the Second of England—he of the warring sons—there were certain forests in the north country set aside for the King's hunting, and no man might shoot deer therein under penalty of death. These forests were guarded by the King's Foresters, the chief of whom, in each wood, was no mean man but equal in authority to the Sheriff in his walled town, or even to my lord Bishop in his abbey.
One of the greatest of royal preserves was Sherwood and Barnesdale forests near the two towns of Nottingham and Barnesdale. Here for some years dwelt one Hugh Fitzooth as Head Forester, with his good wife and son Robert. The boy had been born in Lockesley town—in the year 1160, stern records say—and was often called Lockesley, or Rob of Lockesley. He was a comely, well-knit stripling, and as soon as he was strong enough to walk his chief delight was to go with his father into the forest. As soon as his right arm received thew and sinew he learned to draw the long bow and speed a true arrow. While on winter evenings his greatest joy was to hear his father tell of bold Will o' the Green, the outlaw, who for many summers defied the King's Foresters and feasted with his men upon King's deer. And on other stormy days the boy learned to whittle out a straight shaft for the long bow, and tip it with gray goose feathers.
The fond mother sighed when she saw the boy's face light up at these woodland tales. She was of gentle birth, and had hoped to see her son famous at court or abbey. She taught him to read and to write, to doff his cap without awkwardness and to answer directly and truthfully both lord and peasant. But the boy, although he took kindly to these lessons of breeding, was yet happiest when he had his beloved bow in hand and strolled at will, listening to the murmur of the trees.
Two playmates had Rob in these gladsome early days. One was Will Gamewell, his father's brother's son, who lived at Gamewell Lodge, hard by Nottingham town. The other was Marian Fitzwalter, only child of the Earl of Huntingdon. The castle of Huntingdon could be seen from the top of one of the tall trees in Sherwood; and on more than one bright day Rob's white signal from this tree told Marian that he awaited her there: for you must know that Rob did not visit her at the castle. His father and her father were enemies. Some people whispered that Hugh Fitzooth was the rightful Earl of Huntingdon, but that he had been defrauded out of his lands by Fitzwalter, who had won the King's favor by a crusade to the Holy Land. But little cared Rob or Marian for this enmity, however it had arisen. They knew that the great green—wood was open to them, and that the wide, wide world was full of the scent of flowers and the song of birds.
Days of youth speed all too swiftly, and troubled skies come all too soon. Rob's father had two other enemies besides Fitzwalter, in the persons of the lean Sheriff of Nottingham and the fat Bishop of Hereford. These three enemies one day got possession of the King's ear and whispered therein to such good—or evil—purpose that Hugh Fitzooth was removed from his post of King's Forester. He and his wife and Rob, then a youth of nineteen, were descended upon, during a cold winter's evening, and dispossessed without warning. The Sheriff arrested the Forester for treason—of which, poor man, he was as guiltless as you or I—and carried him to Nottingham jail. Rob and his mother were sheltered over night in the jail, also, but next morning were roughly bade to go about their business. Thereupon they turned for succor to their only kinsman, Squire George of Gamewell, who sheltered them in all kindness.
But the shock, and the winter night's journey, proved too much for Dame Fitzooth. She had not been strong for some time before leaving the forest. In less than two months she was no more. Rob felt as though his heart was broken at this loss. But scarcely had the first spring flowers begun to blossom upon her grave, when he met another crushing blow in the loss of his father. That stern man had died in prison before his accusers could agree upon the charges by which he was to be brought to trial.
Two years passed by. Rob's cousin Will was away at school; and Marian's father, who had learned of her friendship with Rob, had sent his daughter to the court of Queen Eleanor. So these years were lonely ones to the orphaned lad. The bluff old Squire was kind to him, but secretly could make nothing of one who went about brooding and as though seeking for something he had lost. The truth is that Rob missed his old life in the forest no less than his mother's gentleness, and his father's companionship. Every time he twanged the string of the long bow against his shoulder and heard the gray goose shaft sing, it told him of happy days that he could not recall.
One morning as Rob came in to breakfast, his uncle greeted him with, "I have news for you, Rob, my lad!" and the hearty old Squire finished his draught of ale and set his pewter tankard down with a crash.
"What may that be, Uncle Gamewell?" asked the young man.
"Here is a chance to exercise your good long bow and win a pretty prize. The Fair is on at Nottingham, and the Sheriff proclaims an archer's tournament. The best fellows are to have places with the King's Foresters, and the one who shoots straightest of all will win for prize a golden arrow—a useless bauble enough, but just the thing for your lady love, eh, Rob my boy?" Here the Squire laughed and whacked the table again with his tankard.
Rob's eyes sparkled. "'Twere indeed worth shooting for, uncle mine," he said. "I should dearly love to let arrow fly alongside another man. And a place among the Foresters is what I have long desired. Will you let me try?"
"To be sure," rejoined his uncle. "Well I know that your good mother would have had me make a clerk of you; but well I see that the greenwood is where you will pass your days. So, here's luck to you in the bout!" And the huge tankard came a third time into play.
The young man thanked his uncle for his good wishes, and set about making preparations for the journey. He traveled lightly; but his yew bow must needs have a new string, and his cloth-yard arrows must be of the straightest and soundest.
One fine morning, a few days after, Rob might have been seen passing by way of Lockesley through Sherwood Forest to Nottingham town. Briskly walked he and gaily, for his hopes were high and never an enemy had he in the wide world. But 'twas the very last morning in all his life when he was to lack an enemy! For, as he went his way through Sherwood, whistling a blithe tune, he came suddenly upon a group of Foresters, making merry beneath the spreading branches of an oak-tree. They had a huge meat pie before them and were washing down prodigious slices of it with nut brown ale.
One glance at the leader and Rob knew at once that he had found an enemy. 'Twas the man who had usurped his father's place as Head Forester, and who had roughly turned his mother out in the snow. But never a word said he for good or bad, and would have passed on his way, had not this man, clearing his throat with a huge gulp, bellowed out: "By my troth, here is a pretty little archer! Where go you, my lad, with that tupenny bow and toy arrows? Belike he would shoot at Nottingham Fair! Ho! Ho!"
A roar of laughter greeted this sally. Rob flushed, for he was mightily proud of his shooting.
"My bow is as good as yours," he retorted, "and my shafts will carry as straight and as far. So I'll not take lessons of any of ye."
They laughed again loudly at this, and the leader said with frown:
"Show us some of your skill, and if you can hit the mark here's twenty silver pennies for you. But if you hit it not you are in for a sound drubbing for your pertness."
"Pick your own target," quoth Rob in a fine rage. "I'll lay my head against that purse that I can hit it."
"It shall be as you say," retorted the Forester angrily, "your head for your sauciness that you hit not my target."
Now at a little rise in the wood a herd of deer came grazing by, distant full fivescore yards. They were King's deer, but at that distance seemed safe from any harm. The Head Forester pointed to them.
"If your young arm could speed a shaft for half that distance, I'd shoot with you."
"Done!" cried Rob. "My head against twenty pennies I'll cause yon fine fellow in the lead of them to breathe his last."
And without more ado he tried the string of his long bow, placed a shaft thereon, and drew it to his ear. A moment, and the quivering string sang death as the shaft whistled across the glade. Another moment and the leader of the herd leaped high in his tracks and fell prone, dyeing the sward with his heart's blood.
A murmur of amazement swept through the Foresters, and then a growl of rage. He that had wagered was angriest of all.
"Know you what you have done, rash youth?" he said. "You have killed a King's deer, and by the laws of King Harry your head remains forfeit. Talk not to me of pennies but get ye gone straight, and let me not look upon your face again."
Rob's blood boiled within him, and he uttered a rash speech. "I have looked upon your face once too often already, my fine Forester. 'Tis you who wear my father's shoes."
And with this he turned upon his heel and strode away.
The Forester heard his parting thrust with an oath. Red with rage he seized his bow, strung an arrow, and without warning launched it full af' Rob. Well was it for the latter that the Forester's foot turned on a twig at the critical instant, for as it was the arrow whizzed by his ear so close as to take a stray strand of his hair with it. Rob turned upon his assailant, now twoscore yards away.
"Ha!" said he. "You shoot not so straight as I, for all your bravado. Take this from the tupenny bow!"
Straight flew his answering shaft. The Head Forester gave one cry, then fell face downward and lay still. His life had avenged Rob's father, but the son was outlawed. Forward he ran through the forest, before the band could gather their scattered wits—still forward into the great greenwood. The swaying trees seemed to open their arms to the wanderer, and to welcome him home.
Toward the close of the same day, Rob paused hungry and weary at the cottage of a poor widow who dwelt upon the outskirts of the forest. Now this widow had often greeted him kindly in his boyhood days, giving him to eat and drink. So he boldly entered her door. The old dame was right glad to see him, and baked him cakes in the ashes, and had him rest and tell her his story. Then she shook her head.
"'Tis an evil wind that blows through Sherwood," she said. "The poor are despoiled and the rich ride over their bodies. My three sons have been outlawed for shooting King's deer to keep us from starving, and now hide in the wood. And they tell me that twoscore of as good men as ever drew bow are in hiding with them."
"Where are they, good mother?" cried Rob. "By my faith, I will join them."
"Nay, nay," replied the old woman at first. But when she saw that there was no other way, she said: "My sons will visit me to-night. Stay you here and see them if you must."
So Rob stayed willingly to see the widow's sons that night, for they were men after his own heart. And when they found that his mood was with them, they made him swear an oath of fealty, and told him the haunt of the band—a place he knew right well. Finally one of them said:
"But the band lacks a leader—one who can use his head as well as his hand. So we have agreed that he who has skill enough to go to Nottingham, an outlaw, and win the prize at archery, shall be our chief."
Rob sprang to his feet. "Said in good time!" cried he, "for I had started to that self-same Fair, and all the Foresters, and all the Sheriff's men in Christendom shall not stand between me and the center of their target!"
And though he was but barely grown he stood so straight and his eye flashed with such fire that the three brothers seized his hand and shouted:
"A Lockesley! a Lockesley! if you win the golden arrow you shall be chief of outlaws in Sherwood Forest!"
So Rob fell to planning how he could disguise himself to go to Nottingham town; for he knew that the Foresters had even then set a price on his head in the market-place.
It was even as Rob had surmised. The Sheriff of Nottingham posted a reward of two hundred pounds for the capture, dead or alive, of one Robert Fitzooth, outlaw. And the crowds thronging the streets upon that busy Fair day often paused to read the notice and talk together about the death of the Head Forester.
But what with wrestling bouts and bouts with quarter-staves, and wandering minstrels, there came up so many other things to talk about, that the reward was forgotten for the nonce, and only the Foresters and Sheriff's men watched the gates with diligence, the Sheriff indeed spurring them to effort by offers of largess. His hatred of the father had descended to the son.
The great event of the day came in the afternoon. It was the archer's contest for the golden arrow, and twenty men stepped forth to shoot. Among them was a beggar-man, a sorry looking fellow with leggings of different colors, and brown scratched face and hands. Over a tawny shock of hair he had a hood drawn, much like that of a monk. Slowly he limped to his place in the line, while the mob shouted in derision. But the contest was open to all comers, so no man said him nay.
Side by side with Rob—for it was he—stood a muscular fellow of swarthy visage and with one eye hid by a green bandage. Him also the crowd jeered, but he passed them by with indifference while he tried his bow with practiced hand.
A great crowd had assembled in the amphitheater enclosing the lists. All the gentry and populace of the surrounding country were gathered there in eager expectancy. The central box contained the lean but pompous Sheriff, his bejeweled wife, and their daughter, a supercilious young woman enough, who, it was openly hinted, was hoping to receive the golden arrow from the victor and thus be crowned queen of the day.
Next to the Sheriff's box was one occupied by the fat Bishop of Hereford; while in the other side was a box wherein sat a girl whose dark hair, dark eyes, and fair features caused Rob's heart to leap. 'Twas Maid Marian! She had come up for a visit from the Queen's court at London town, and now sat demurely by her father the Earl of Huntingdon. If Rob had been grimly resolved to win the arrow before, the sight of her sweet face multiplied his determination an hundredfold. He felt his muscles tightening into bands of steel, tense and true. Yet withal his heart would throb, making him quake in a most unaccountable way.
Then the trumpet sounded, and the crowd became silent while the herald announced the terms of the contest. The lists were open to all comers. The first target was to be placed at thirty ells distance, and all those who hit its center were allowed to shoot at the second target, placed ten ells farther off. The third target was to be removed yet farther, until the winner was proved. The winner was to receive the golden arrow, and a place with the King's Foresters. He it was also who crowned the queen of the day.
The trumpet sounded again, and the archers prepared to shoot. Rob looked to his string, while the crowd smiled and whispered at the odd figure he cut, with his vari-colored legs and little cape. But as the first man shot, they grew silent.
The target was not so far but that twelve out of the twenty contestants reached its inner circle. Rob shot sixth in the line and landed fairly, being rewarded by an approving grunt from the man with the green blinder, who shot seventh, and with apparent carelessness, yet true to the bull's-eye.
The mob cheered and yelled themselves hoarse at this even marksmanship. The trumpet sounded again, and a new target was set up at forty ells.
The first three archers again struck true, amid the loud applause of the onlookers; for they were general favorites and expected to win. Indeed 'twas whispered that each was backed by one of the three dignitaries of the day. The fourth and fifth archers barely grazed the center. Rob fitted his arrow quietly and with some confidence sped it unerringly toward the shining circle.
"The beggar! the beggar!" yelled the crowd; "another bull for the beggar!" In truth his shaft was nearer the center than any of the others. But it was not so near that "Blinder," as the mob had promptly christened his neighbor, did not place his shaft just within the mark. Again the crowd cheered wildly. Such shooting as this was not seen every day in Nottingham town.
The other archers in this round were disconcerted by the preceding shots, or unable to keep the pace. They missed one after another and dropped moodily back, while the trumpet sounded for the third round, and the target was set up fifty ells distant.
"By my halidom you draw a good bow, young master," said Rob's queer comrade to him in the interval allowed for rest. "Do you wish me to shoot first on this trial?"
"Nay," said Rob, "but you are a good fellow by this token, and if I win not, I hope you may keep the prize from yon strutters." And he nodded scornfully to the three other archers who were surrounded by their admirers, and were being made much of by retainers of the Sheriff, the Bishop, and the Earl. From them his eye wandered toward Maid Marian's booth. She had been watching him, it seemed, for their eyes met; then hers were hastily averted.
"Blinder's" quick eye followed those of Rob. "A fair maid, that," he said smilingly, "and one more worthy the golden arrow than the Sheriff's haughty miss."
Rob looked at him swiftly, and saw naught but kindliness in his glance.
"You are a shrewd fellow and I like you well," was his only comment.
Now the archers prepared to shoot again, each with some little care. The target seemed hardly larger than the inner ring had looked, at the first trial. The first three sped their shafts, and while they were fair shots they did not more than graze the inner circle.
Rob took his stand with some misgiving. Some flecking clouds overhead made the light uncertain, and a handful of wind frolicked across the range in a way quite disturbing to a bowman's nerves. His eyes wandered for a brief moment to the box wherein sat the dark-eyed girl. His heart leaped! she met his glance and smiled at him reassuringly. And in that moment he felt that she knew him despite his disguise and looked to him to keep the honor of old Sherwood. He drew his bow firmly and, taking advantage of a momentary lull in the breeze, launched the arrow straight and true-singing across the range to the center of the target.
"The beggar! the beggar! a bull! a bull!" yelled the fickle mob, who from jeering him were now his warm friends. "Can you beat that, Blinder?"
The last archer smiled scornfully and made ready. He drew his bow with ease and grace and, without seeming to study the course, released the winged arrow. Forward it leaped toward the target, and all eyes followed its flight. A loud uproar broke forth when it alighted, just without the center and grazing the shaft sent by Rob. The stranger made a gesture of surprise when his own eyes announced the result to him, but saw his error. He had not allowed for the fickle gust of wind which seized the arrow and carried it to one side. But for all that he was the first to congratulate the victor.
"I hope we may shoot again," quoth he. "In truth I care not for the golden bauble and wished to win it in despite of the Sheriff for whom I have no love. Now crown the lady of your choice." And turning suddenly he was lost in the crowd, before Rob could utter what it was upon his lips to say, that he would shoot again with him.
And now the herald summoned Rob to the Sheriff's box to receive the prize.
"You are a curious fellow enough," said the Sheriff, biting his lip coldly; "yet you shoot well. What name go you by?"
Marian sat near and was listening intently.
"I am called Rob the Stroller, my Lord Sheriff," said the archer.
Marian leaned back and smiled.
"Well, Rob the Stroller, with a little attention to your skin and clothes you would not be so bad a man," said the Sheriff. "How like you the idea of entering my service.
"Rob the Stroller has ever been a free man, my Lord, and desires no service."
The Sheriff's brow darkened, yet for the sake of his daughter and the golden arrow, he dissembled.
"Rob the Stroller," said he, "here is the golden arrow which has been offered to the best of archers this day. You are awarded the prize. See that you bestow it worthily."
At this point the herald nudged Rob and half inclined his head toward the Sheriff's daughter, who sat with a thin smile upon her lips. But Rob heeded him not. He took the arrow and strode to the next box where sat Maid Marian.
"Lady," he said, "pray accept this little pledge from a poor stroller who would devote the best shafts in his quiver to serve you."
"My thanks to you, Rob in the Hood," replied she with a roguish twinkle in her eye; and she placed the gleaming arrow in her hair, while the people shouted, "The Queen! the Queen!"
The Sheriff glowered furiously upon this ragged archer who had refused his service, taken his prize without a word of thanks, and snubbed his daughter. He would have spoken, but his proud daughter restrained him. He called to his guard and bade them watch the beggar. But Rob had already turned swiftly, lost himself in the throng, and headed straight for the town gate.
That same evening within a forest glade a group of men—some twoscore clad in Lincoln green—sat round a fire roasting venison and making merry. Suddenly a twig crackled and they sprang to their feet and seized their weapons.
"I look for the widow's sons," a clear voice said, "and I come alone."
Instantly the three men stepped forward.
"Tis Rob!" they cried; "welcome to Sherwood Forest, Rob!" And all the men came and greeted him; for they had heard his story.
Then one of the widow's sons, Stout Will, stepped forth and said:
"Comrades all, ye know that our band has sadly lacked a leader—one of birth, breeding, and skill. Belike we have found that leader in this young man. And I and my brothers have told him that the band would choose that one who should bring the Sheriff to shame this day and capture his golden arrow. Is it not so?"
The band gave assent.
Will turned to Rob. "What news bring you from Nottingham town?" asked he.
Rob laughed. "In truth I brought the Sheriff to shame for mine own pleasure, and won his golden arrow to boot. But as to the prize ye must e'en take my word, for I bestowed it upon a maid."
And seeing the men stood in doubt at this, he continued: "But I'll gladly join your band, and you take me, as a common archer. For there are others older and mayhap more skilled than I."
Then stepped one forward from the rest, a tall swarthy man. And Rob recognized him as the man with the green blinder; only this was now removed, and his freed eye gleamed as stoutly as the other one.
"Rob in the Hood—for such the lady called you," said he, "I can vouch for your tale. You shamed the Sheriff e'en as I had hoped to do; and we can forego the golden arrow since it is in such fair hands. As to your shooting and mine, we must let future days decide. But here I, Will Stutely, declare that I will serve none other chief save only you."
Then good Will Stutely told the outlaws of Rob's deeds, and gave him his hand of fealty. And the widow's sons did likewise, and the other members every one, right gladly; because Will Stutely had heretofore been the truest bow in all the company. And they toasted him in nut brown ale, and hailed him as their leader, by the name of Robin Hood. And he accepted that name because Maid Marian had said it.
By the light of the camp-fire the band exchanged signs and passwords. They gave Robin Hood a horn upon which he was to blow to summon them. They swore, also, that while they might take money and goods from the unjust rich, they would aid and befriend the poor and the helpless; and that they would harm no woman, be she maid, wife, or widow. They swore all this with solemn oaths, while they feasted about the ruddy blaze, under the greenwood tree.
And that is how Robin Hood became an outlaw.
HOW ROBIN HOOD MET LITTLE JOHN
"O here is my hand," the stranger reply'd, "I'll serve you with all my whole heart. My name is John Little, a man of good mettle, Ne'er doubt me for I'll play my part."
"His name shall be altered," quoth William Stutely, "And I will his godfather be: Prepare then a feast, and none of the least, For we will be merry," quoth he.
All that summer Robin Hood and his merry men roamed in Sherwood Forest, and the fame of their deeds ran abroad in the land. The Sheriff of Nottingham waxed wroth at the report, but all his traps and excursions failed to catch the outlaws. The poor people began by fearing them, but when they found that the men in Lincoln green who answered Robin Hood's horn meant them no harm, but despoiled the oppressor to relieve the oppressed, they 'gan to have great liking for them. And the band increased by other stout hearts till by the end of the summer fourscore good men and true had sworn fealty.
But the days of quiet which came on grew irksome to Robin's adventurous spirit. Up rose he, one gay morn, and slung his quiver over his shoulders.
"This fresh breeze stirs the blood, my lads," quoth he, "and I would be seeing what the gay world looks like in the direction of Nottingham town. But tarry ye behind in the borders of the forest, within earshot of my bugle call."
Thus saying he strode merrily forward to the edge of the wood, and paused there a moment, his agile form erect, his brown locks flowing and his brown eyes watching the road; and a goodly sight he made, as the wind blew the ruddy color into his cheeks.
The highway led clear in the direction of the town, and thither he boldly directed his steps. But at a bend in the road he knew of a by-path leading across a brook which made the way nearer and less open, into which he turned. As he approached the stream he saw that it had become swollen by recent rains into quite a pretty torrent. The log foot-bridge was still there, but at this end of it a puddle intervened which could be crossed only with a leap, if you would not get your feet wet.
But Robin cared little for such a handicap. Taking a running start, his nimble legs carried him easily over and balanced neatly upon the end of the broad log. But he was no sooner started across than he saw a tall stranger coming from the other side. Thereupon Robin quickened his pace, and the stranger did likewise, each thinking to cross first. Midway they met, and neither would yield an inch.
"Give way, fellow!" roared Robin, whose leadership of a band, I am afraid, had not tended to mend his manners.
The stranger smiled. He was almost a head taller than the other.
"Nay," he retorted, "fair and softly! I give way only to a better man than myself."
"Give way, I say", repeated Robin, "or I shall have to show you a better man."
His opponent budged not an inch, but laughed loudly. "Now by my halidom!" he said good-naturedly, "I would not move after hearing that speech, even if minded to it before; for this better man I have sought my life long. Therefore show him to me, an it please you."
"That will I right soon," quoth Robin. "Stay you here a little while, till I cut me a cudgel like unto that you have been twiddling in your fingers." So saying he sought his own bank again with a leap, laid aside his long bow and arrows, and cut him a stout staff of oak, straight, knotless, and a good six feet in length. But still it was a full foot shorter than his opponent's. Then back came he boldly.
"I mind not telling you, fellow," said he, "that a bout with archery would have been an easier way with me. But there are other tunes in England besides that the arrow sings." Here he whirred the staff about his head by way of practice. "So make you ready for the tune I am about to play upon your ribs. Have at you! One, two—"
"Three!" roared the giant smiting at him instantly.
Well was it for Robin that he was quick and nimble of foot; for the blow that grazed a hair's breadth from his shoulder would have felled an ox. Nevertheless while swerving to avoid this stroke, Robin was poising for his own, and back came he forthwith—whack!
Whack! parried the other.
Whack! whack! whack! whack!
The fight waxed fast and furious. It was strength pitted against subtlety, and the match was a merry one. The mighty blows of the stranger went whistling around Robin's ducking head, while his own swift undercuts were fain to give the other an attack of indigestion. Yet each stood firmly in his place not moving backward or forward a foot for a good half hour, nor thinking of crying "Enough!" though some chance blow seemed likely to knock one or the other off the narrow foot-bridge. The giant's face was getting red, and his breath came snorting forth like a bull's. He stepped forward with a furious onslaught to finish this audacious fellow. Robin dodged his blows lightly, then sprang in swiftly and unexpectedly and dealt the stranger such a blow upon the short ribs that you would have sworn the tanner was trimming down his hides for market.
The stranger reeled and came within an ace of falling, but regained his footing right quickly.
"By my life, you can hit hard!" he gasped forth, giving back a blow almost while he was yet staggering.
This blow was a lucky one. It caught Robin off his guard. His stick had rested a moment while he looked to see the giant topple into the water, when down came the other upon his head, whack! Robin saw more stars in that one moment than all the astronomers have since discovered, and forthwith he dropped neatly into the stream.
The cool rushing current quickly brought him to his senses, howbeit he was still so dazed that he groped blindly for the swaying reeds to pull himself up on the bank. His assailant could not forbear laughing heartily at his plight, but was also quick to lend his aid. He thrust down his long staff to Robin crying, "Lay hold of that, an your fists whirl not so much as your head!"
Robin laid hold and was hauled to dry land for all the world like a fish, except that the fish would never have come forth so wet and dripping. He lay upon the warm bank for a space to regain his senses. Then he sat up and gravely rubbed his pate.
"By all the saints!" said he, "you hit full stoutly. My head hums like a hive of bees on a summer morning."
Then he seized his horn, which lay near, and blew thereon three shrill notes that echoed against the trees. A moment of silence ensued, and then was heard the rustling of leaves and crackling of twigs like the coming of many men; and forth from the glade burst a score or two of stalwart yeomen, all clad in Lincoln green, like Robin, with good Will Stutely and the widow's three sons at their head.
"Good master," cried Will Stutely, "how is this? In sooth there is not a dry thread on your body."
"Why, marry," replied Robin, "this fellow would not let me pass the footbridge, and when I tickled him in the ribs, he must needs answer by a pat on the head which landed me overboard."
"Then shall he taste some of his own porridge," quoth Will. "Seize him, lads!"
"Nay, let him go free," said Robin. "The fight was a fair one and I abide by it. I surmise you also are quits?" he continued, turning to the stranger with a twinkling eye.
"I am content," said the other, "for verily you now have the best end of the cudgel. Wherefore, I like you well, and would fain know your name."
"Why," said Robin, "my men and even the Sheriff of Nottingham know me as Robin Hood, the outlaw."
"Then am I right sorry that I beat you," exclaimed the man, "for I was on my way to seek you and to try to join your merry company. But after my unmannerly use of the cudgel, I fear we are still strangers."
"Nay, never say it!" cried Robin, "I am glad I fell in with you; though, sooth to say, I did all the falling!"
And amid a general laugh the two men clasped hands, and in that clasp the strong friendship of a lifetime was begun.
"But you have not yet told us your name," said Robin, bethinking himself.
"Whence I came, men call me John Little."
"Enter our company then, John Little; enter and welcome. The rites are few, the fee is large. We ask your whole mind and body and heart even unto death."
"I give the bond, upon my life," said the tall man.
Thereupon Will Stutely, who loved a good jest, spoke up and said: "The infant in our household must be christened, and I'll stand godfather. This fair little stranger is so small of bone and sinew, that his old name is not to the purpose." Here he paused long enough to fill a horn in the stream. "Hark ye, my son,"—standing on tiptoe to splash the water on the giant—"take your new name on entering the forest. I christen you Little John."
At this jest the men roared long and loud.
"Give him a bow, and find a full sheath of arrows for Little John," said Robin joyfully. "Can you shoot as well as fence with the staff, my friend?"
"I have hit an ash twig at forty yards," said Little John.
Thus chatting pleasantly the band turned back into the woodland and sought their secluded dell, where the trees were the thickest, the moss was the softest, and a secret path led to a cave, at once a retreat and a stronghold. Here under a mighty oak they found the rest of the band, some of whom had come in with a brace of fat does. And here they built a ruddy fire and sat down to the meat and ale, Robin Hood in the center with Will Stutely on the one hand and Little John on the other. And Robin was right well pleased with the day's adventure, even though he had got a drubbing; for sore ribs and heads will heal, and 'tis not every day that one can find a recruit as stout of bone and true of soul as Little John.
HOW ROBIN HOOD TURNED BUTCHER, AND ENTERED THE SHERIFF'S SERVICE
The butcher he answered jolly Robin, "No matter where I do dwell, For a butcher am I, and to Nottingham Am I going, my flesh to sell."
The next morning the weather had turned ill, and Robin Hood's band stayed close to their dry and friendly cave. The third day brought a diversion in the shape of a trap by a roving party of the Sheriff's men. A fine stag had been struck down by one Of Will Stutely's fellows, and he and others had stepped forth from the covert to seize it, when twenty bowmen from Nottingham appeared at the end of the glade. Down dropped Will's men on all fours, barely in time to hear a shower of arrows whistle above their heads. Then from behind the friendly trees they sent back such a welcome that the Sheriff's men deemed it prudent not to tarry in their steps. Two of them, in sooth, bore back unpleasant wounds in their shoulders, from the encounter.
When they returned to town the Sheriff waxed red with rage.
"What," he gasped, "do my men fear to fight this Robin Hood, face to face? Would that I could get him within my reach, once. We should see then; we should see!"
What it was the Sheriff would see, he did not state. But he was to have his wish granted in short space, and you and I will see how he profited by it.
The fourth day and the one following this friendly bout, Little John was missing. One of his men said that he saw him talking with a beggar, but did not know whither they had gone. Two more days passed. Robin grew uneasy. He did not doubt the faith of Little John, but he was fearful lest a roving band of Foresters had captured him.
At last Robin could not remain quiet. Up sprang he, with bow and arrows, and a short sword at his side.
"I must away to Nottingham town, my men," he cried. "The goodly Sheriff has long desired to see me; and mayhap he can tell me tidings of the best quarter-staff in the shire"—meaning Little John.
Others of the band besought him to let them go with him, but he would not.
"Nay," he said smilingly, "the Sheriff and I are too good friends to put doubt upon our meeting. But tarry ye in the edge of the wood opposite the west gate of the town, and ye may be of service ere to-morrow night."
So saying he strode forward to the road leading to Nottingham, and stood as before looking up and down to see if the way was clear. Back at a bend in the road he heard a rumbling and a lumbering, when up drove a stout butcher, whistling gaily, and driving a mare that sped slowly enough because of the weight of meat with which the cart was loaded.
"A good morrow to you, friend," hailed Robin. "Whence come you and where go you with your load of meat?"
"A good morrow to you," returned the butcher, civilly enough. "No matter where I dwell. I am but a simple butcher, and to Nottingham am I going, my flesh to sell. 'Tis Fair week, and my beef and mutton should fetch a fair penny," and he laughed loudly at his jest. "But whence come you?"
"A yeoman am I, from Lockesley town. Men call me Robin Hood."
"The saints forefend that you should treat me ill!" said the butcher in terror. "Oft have I heard of you, and how you lighten the purses of the fat priests and knights. But I am naught but a poor butcher, selling this load of meat, perchance, for enough to pay my quarter's rent."
"Rest you, my friend, rest you," quoth Robin, "not so much as a silver penny would I take from you, for I love an honest Saxon face and a fair name with my neighbors. But I would strike a bargain with you."
Here he took from his girdle a well-filled purse, and continued, "I would fain be a butcher, this day, and sell meat at Nottingham town. Could you sell me your meat, your cart, your mare, and your good-will, without loss, for five marks?"
"Heaven bless ye, good Robin," cried the butcher right joyfully, "that can I!" And he leaped down forthwith from the cart, and handed Robin the reins in exchange for the purse.
"One moment more," laughed Robin, "we must e'en change garments for the nonce. Take mine and scurry home quickly lest the King's Foresters try to put a hole through this Lincoln green."
So saying he donned the butcher's blouse and apron, and, climbing into the cart, drove merrily down the road to the town.
When he came to Nottingham he greeted the scowling gate-keeper blithely and proceeded to the market-place. Boldly he led his shuffling horse to the place where the butchers had their stalls.
He had no notion of the price to ask for his meat, but put on a foolish and simple air as he called aloud his wares:
"Hark ye, lasses and dames, hark ye, Good meat come buy, come buy, Three pen'orths go for one penny, And a kiss is good, say I!"
Now when the folk found what a simple butcher he was, they crowded around his cart; for he really did sell three times as much for one penny as was sold by the other butchers. And one or two serving-lasses with twinkling eyes liked his comely face so well that they willingly gave boot of a kiss.
But the other butchers were wroth when they found how he was taking their trade; and they accordingly put their heads together.
One said, "He is a prodigal and has sold his father's land, and this is his first venture in trading."
Another said, "He is a thief who has murdered a butcher, and stolen his horse and meat."
Robin heard these sayings, but only laughed merrily and sang his song the louder. His good-humor made the people laugh also and crowd round his cart closely, shouting uproariously when some buxom lass submitted to be kissed.
Then the butchers saw that they must meet craft with craft; and they said to him, "Come, brother butcher, if you would sell meat with us, you must e'en join our guild and stand by the rules of our trade."
"We dine at the Sheriff's mansion to-day," said another, "and you must take one of our party."
"Accurst of his heart," said jolly Robin, "That a butcher will deny. I'll go with you, my brethren true, And as fast as I can hie."
Whereupon, having sold all his meat, he left his horse and cart in charge of a friendly hostler and prepared to follow his mates to the Mansion House.
It was the Sheriff's custom to dine various guilds of the trade, from time to time, on Fair days, for he got a pretty profit out of the fees they paid him for the right to trade in the market-place. The Sheriff was already come with great pomp into the banqueting room, when Robin Hood and three or four butchers entered, and he greeted them all with great condescension; and presently the whole of a large company was seated at a table groaning beneath the good cheer of the feast.
Now the Sheriff bade Robin sit by his right hand, at the head of the board; for one or two butchers had whispered to the official, "That fellow is a right mad blade, who yet made us much sport to-day. He sold more meat for one penny than we could sell for three; and he gave extra weight to whatsoever lass would buss him." And others said, "He is some prodigal who knows not the value of goods, and may be plucked by a shrewd man right closely."
The Sheriff was will to pluck a prodigal with the next man, and he was moreover glad to have a guest who promised to enliven the feast. So, as I have told you, he placed Robin by his side, and he made much of him and laughed boisterously at his jests; though sooth to say, the laugh were come by easily, for Robin had never been in merrier mood, and his quips and jests soon put the whole table at a roar.
Then my lord Bishop of Hereford came in, last of all, to say a ponderous grace and take his seat on the other side of the Sheriff—the prelate's fat body showing up in goodly contrast to the other's lean bones.
After grace was said, and while the servants clattered in with the meat platters, Robin stood up and said:
"An amen say I to my lord Bishop's thanks! How, now, my fine fellows, be merry and drink deep; for the shot I'll pay ere I go my way, though it cost me five pounds and more. So my lords and gentlemen all, spare not the wine, but fall to lustily."
"Hear! hear!" shouted the butchers.
"Now are you a right jolly soul," quoth the Sheriff, "but this feast is mine own. Howbeit you must have many a head of horned beasts, and many an acre of broad land, to spend from your purse so freely."
"Aye, that have I," returned Robin, his eyes all a twinkle, "five hundred horned beasts have I and my brothers, and none of them have we been able to sell. That is why I have turned butcher. But I know not the trade, and would gladly sell the whole herd, an I could find a buyer."
At this, the Sheriff's greed 'gan to rise. Since this fool would be plucked, thought he, why should not he do the plucking?
"Five hundred beasts, say you?" he queried sharply.
"Five hundred and ten fat beasts by actual count, that I would sell for a just figure. Aye, to him who will pay me in right money, would I sell them for twenty pieces of gold. Is that too much to ask, lording?"
Was there ever such an idiot butcher? thought the Sheriff; and he so far forgot his dignity as to nudge the Bishop in his fat ribs.
"Nay, good fellow," quoth he chuckling, "I am always ready to help any in my shire. An you cannot find a buyer for your herd at this just figure, I will e'en buy them myself."
At this generosity Robin was quite overcome, and fell to praising the Sheriff to the skies, and telling him that he should not have cause to forget the kindness.
"Tut, tut," said the Sheriff, "'tis naught but a trade. Drive in your herd tomorrow to the market-place and you shall have money down."
"Nay, excellence," said Robin, "that can I not easily do, for they are grazing in scattered fashion. But they are over near Gamewell, not more than a mile therefrom at most. Will you not come and choose your own beasts tomorrow?"
"Aye, that I will," said the Sheriff, his cupidity casting his caution to the winds. "Tarry with me over night, and I will go with you in the morning."
This was a poser for Robin, since he liked not the idea of staying over night at the Sheriff's house. He had hoped to appoint a meeting-place for the other, but now saw that this might excite doubt. He looked around at the company. By this time, you must know, the feast had progressed far, and the butchers were deep in their cups. The Sheriff and Robin had talked in a low voice, and my lord Bishop was almost asleep.
"Agreed," said Robin presently, and the words were no sooner out of his mouth than the door opened and a serving-man entered bearing tray of mulled wine. At sight of the fellow's face, Robin gave an involuntary start of surprise which was instantly checked. The other also saw him, stood still a moment, and as if forgetting something turned about and left the hall.
It was Little John.
A dozen questions flashed across Robin's mind, and he could find answer for none of them. What was Little John doing in the Sheriff's house? Why had he not told the band? Was he true to them? Would he betray him?
But these questions of distrust were dismissed from Robin's open mind as soon as they had entered. He knew that Little John was faithful and true.
He recovered his spirits and began again upon a vein of foolish banter, for the amusement of the Sheriff and his guests, all being now merry with wine.
"A song!" one of them shouted, and the cry was taken up round the table. Robin mounted his chair and trolled forth:
"A lass and a butcher of Nottingham Agreed 'twixt them for to wed. Says he, 'I'll give ye the meat, fair dame, And ye will give me the bread."
Then they joined in the chorus amid a pounding of cups upon the board:
"With a hey and a ho And a hey nonny no, A butcher of Nottingham!"
While the song was at its height, Little John reappeared, with other servants, and refilled the cups. He came up to Robin and, as if asking him if he would have more wine, said softly, "Meet me in the pantry to-night."
Robin nodded, and sang loudly. The day was already far spent, and presently the company broke up with many hiccupy bows of the Sheriff and little notice of the drowsy Bishop.
When the company was dispersed, the Sheriff bade a servant show Robin to his room, and promised to see him at breakfast the next day.
Robin kept his word and met Little John that night, and the sheriff next day; but Little John has been doing so much in the meantime that he must be allowed a chapter to himself.
So let us turn to another story that was sung of, in the ballads of olden time, and find out how Little John entered the Sheriff's service.
HOW LITTLE JOHN ENTERED THE SHERIFF'S SERVICE
List and hearken, gentlemen, All ye that now be here, Of Little John, that was Knight's-man, Good mirth ye now shall hear.
It had come around another Fair day at Nottingham town, and folk crowded there by all the gates. Goods of many kinds were displayed in gaily colored booths, and at every cross-street a free show was in progress. Here and there, stages had been erected for the play at quarter-staff, a highly popular sport.
There was a fellow, one Eric of Lincoln, who was thought to be the finest man with the staff for miles around. His feats were sung about in ballads through all the shire. A great boaster was he withal, and to-day he strutted about on one of these corner stages, and vaunted of his prowess, and offered to crack any man's crown for a shilling. Several had tried their skill with Eric, but he had soon sent them spinning in no gentle manner, amid the jeers and laughter of the onlookers.
A beggar-man sat over against Eric's stage and grinned every time a pate was cracked. He was an uncouth fellow, ragged and dirty and unshaven. Eric caught sight of his leering face at one of his boasts—for there was a lull in the game, because no man else wanted to come within reach of Eric's blows. Eric, I say, noticed the beggar-man grinning at him rather impudently, and turned toward him sharply.
"How now, you dirty villain!" quoth he, "mend your manners to your betters, or, by our Lady, I'll dust your rags for you."
The beggar-man still grinned. "I am always ready to mend my manners to my betters," said he, "but I am afraid you cannot teach me any better than you can dust my jacket."
"Come up! Come up!" roared the other, flourishing his staff.
"That will I," said the beggar, getting up slowly and with difficulty. "It will pleasure me hugely to take a braggart down a notch, an some good man will lend me a stout quarter-staff."
At this a score of idlers reached him their staves—being ready enough to see another man have his head cracked, even if they wished to save their own—and he took the stoutest and heaviest of all. He made a sorry enough figure as he climbed awkwardly upon the stage, but when he had gained it, he towered full half a head above the other, for all his awkwardness. Nathless, he held his stick so clumsily that the crowd laughed in great glee.
Now each man took his place and looked the other up and down, watching warily for an opening. Only a moment stood they thus, for Eric, intent on teaching this rash beggar a lesson and sweeping him speedily off the stage, launched forth boldly and gave the other a sounding crack on the shoulder. The beggar danced about, and made as though he would drop his staff from very pain, while the crowd roared and Eric raised himself for another crushing blow. But just then the awkward beggar came to life. Straightening himself like a flash, he dealt Eric a back-handed blow, the like of which he had never before seen. Down went the boaster to the floor with a sounding thump, and the fickle people yelled and laughed themselves purple; for it was a new sight to see Eric of Lincoln eating dust.
But he was up again almost as soon as he had fallen, and right quickly retreated to his own ringside to gather his wits and watch for an opening. He saw instantly that he had no easy antagonist, and he came in cautiously this time.
And now those who stood around saw the merriest game of quarter-staff that was ever played inside the walls of Nottingham town. Both men were on their guard and fenced with fine skill, being well matched in prowess. Again and again did Eric seek to force an opening under the other's guard, and just as often were his blows parried. The beggar stood sturdily in his tracks contenting himself with beating off the attack. For a long time their blows met like the steady crackling of some huge forest fire, and Eric strove to be wary, for he now knew that the other had no mean wits or mettle. But he grew right mad at last, and began to send down blows so fierce and fast that you would have sworn a great hail-storm was pounding on the shingles over your head. Yet he never so much as entered the tall beggar's guard.
Then at last the stranger saw his chance and changed his tune of fighting. With one upward stroke he sent Eric's staff whirling through the air. With another he tapped Eric on the head; and, with a third broad swing, ere the other could recover himself, he swept him clear off the stage, much as you would brush a fly off the window pane.
Now the people danced and shouted and made so much ado that the shop-keepers left their stalls and others came running from every direction. The victory of the queer beggar made him immensely popular. Eric had been a great bully, and many had suffered defeat and insult at his hands. So the ragged stranger found money and food and drink everywhere at his disposal, and he feasted right comfortably till the afternoon.
Then a long bow contest came on, and to it the beggar went with some of his new friends. It was held in the same arena that Robin had formerly entered; and again the Sheriff and lords and ladies graced the scene with their presence, while the people crowded to their places.
When the archers had stepped forward, the herald rose and proclaimed the rules of the game: how that each man should shoot three shots, and to him who shot best the prize of a yoke of fat steers should belong. A dozen keen-eyed bowmen were there, and among them some of the best fellows in the Forester's and Sheriff's companies. Down at the end of the line towered the tall beggar-man, who must needs twang a bow-string with the best of them.
The Sheriff noted his queer figure and asked: "Who is that ragged fellow?"
"'Tis he that hath but now so soundly cracked the crown of Eric of Lincoln," was the reply.
The shooting presently began, and the targets soon showed a fine reckoning. Last of all came the beggar's turn.
"By your leave," he said loudly, "I'd like it well to shoot with any other man here present at a mark of my own placing." And he strode down the lists with a slender peeled sapling which he stuck upright in the ground. "There," said he, "is a right good mark. Will any man try it?"
But not an archer would risk his reputation on so small a target.
Whereupon the beggar drew his bow with seeming carelessness and split the wand with his shaft.
"Long live the beggar!" yelled the bystanders.
The Sheriff swore a full great oath, and said: "This man is the best archer that ever yet I saw." And he beckoned to him, and asked him: "How now, good fellow, what is your name, and in what country were you born?"
"In Holderness I was born," the man replied; "men call me Reynold Greenleaf."
"You are a sturdy fellow, Reynold Greenleaf, and deserve better apparel than that you wear at present. Will you enter my service? I will give you twenty marks a year, above your living, and three good suits of clothes."
"Three good suits, say you? Then right gladly will I enter your service, for my back has been bare this many a long day."
Then Reynold turned him about to the crowd and shouted: "Hark ye, good people, I have entered the Sheriff's service, and need not the yoke of steers for prize. So take them for yourselves, to feast withal."
At this the crowd shouted more merrily than ever, and threw their caps high into the air. And none so popular a man had come to Nottingham town in many a long day as this same Reynold Greenleaf.
Now you may have guessed, by this time, who Reynold Greenleaf really was; so I shall tell you that he was none other than Little John. And forth went he to the Sheriff's house, and entered his service. But it was a sorry day for the Sheriff when he got his new man. For Little John winked his shrewd eye and said softly to himself: "By my faith, I shall be the worst servant to him that ever yet had he!"
Two days passed by. Little John, it must be confessed, did not make a good servant. He insisted upon eating the Sheriff's best bread and drinking his best wine, so that the steward waxed wroth. Nathless the Sheriff held him in high esteem, and made great talk of taking him along on the next hunting trip.
It was now the day of the banquet to the butchers, about which we have already heard. The banquet hall, you must know, was not in the main house, but connected with it by a corridor. All the servants were bustling about making preparations for the feast, save only Little John, who must needs lie abed the greater part of the day. But he presented himself at last, when the dinner was half over; and being desirous of seeing the guests for himself he went into the hall with the other servants to pass the wine. First, however, I am afraid that some of the wine passed his own lips while he went down the corridor. When he entered the banqueting hall, whom should he see but Robin Hood himself. We can imagine the start of surprise felt by each of these bold fellows upon seeing the other in such strange company. But they kept their secrets, as we have seen, and arranged to meet each other that same night. Meanwhile, the proud Sheriff little knew that he harbored the two chief outlaws of the whole countryside beneath his roof.
After the feast was over and night was beginning to advance, Little John felt faint of stomach and remembered him that he had eaten nothing all that day. Back went he to the pantry to see what eatables were laid by. But there, locking up the stores for the night, stood the fat steward.
"Good Sir Steward," said Little John, "give me to dine, for it is long for Greenleaf to be fasting."
The steward looked grimly at him and rattled the keys at his girdle.
"Sirrah lie-abed," quoth he, "'tis late in the day to be talking of eating. Since you have waited thus long to be hungry, you can e'en take your appetite back to bed again."
"Now by mine appetite, that will I not do," cried Little John. "Your own paunch of fat would be enough for any bear to sleep on through the winter. But my stomach craves food, and food it shall have!"
Saying this he brushed past the steward and tried the door, but it was locked fast; whereat the fat steward chuckled and jangled his keys again.
Then was Little John right mad, and he brought down his huge fist on the door-panel with a sledge-hammer blow that shivered an opening you could thrust your hand into. Little John stooped and peered through the hole to see what food lay within reach, when crack! went the steward's keys upon his crown, and the worthy danced around him playing a tattoo that made Little John's ears ring. At this he turned upon the steward and gave him such a rap that his back went nigh in two, and over went the fat fellow rolling on the floor.
"Lie there," quoth Little John, "till ye find strength to go to bed. Meanwhile, I must be about my dinner." And he kicked open the buttery door without ceremony and brought to light a venison pasty and cold roast pheasant—goodly sights to a hungry man. Placing these down on a convenient shelf he fell to with right good will. So Little John ate and drank as much as he would.
Now the Sheriff had in his kitchen a cook, a stout man and bold, who heard the rumpus and came in to see how the land lay. There sat Little John eating away for dear life, while the fat steward was rolled under the table like a bundle of rags.
"I make my vow!" said the cook, "you are a shrewd hind to dwell thus in a household, and ask thus to dine." So saying he laid aside his spit and drew a good sword that hung at his side.
"I make my vow!" said Little John, "you are a bold man and hardy to come thus between me and my meat. So defend yourself and see that you prove the better man." And he drew his own sword and crossed weapons with the cook.
Then back and forth they clashed with sullen sound. The old ballad which tells of their fight says that they thought nothing for to flee, but stiffly for to stand. There they fought sore together, two miles away and more, but neither might the other harm for the space of a full hour.
"I make my vow!" cried Little John, "you are the best swordsman that ever yet I saw. What say you to resting a space and eating and drinking good health with me. Then we may fall to again with the swords."
"Agreed!" said the cook, who loved good fare as well as a good fight; and they both laid by their swords and fell to the food with hearty will. The venison pasty soon disappeared, and the roast pheasant flew at as lively a rate as ever the bird itself had sped. Then the warriors rested a space and patted their stomachs, and smiled across at each other like bosom friends; for a man when he as dined looks out pleasantly upon the world.
"And now good Reynold Greenleaf," said the cook, "we may as well settle this brave fight we have in hand."
"A true saying," rejoined the other, "but first tell me, friend—for I protest you are my friend henceforth—what is the score we have to settle?"
"Naught save who can handle the sword best," said the cook. "By my troth I had thought to carve you like a capon ere now."
"And I had long since thought to shave your ears," replied Little John. "This bout we can settle in right good time. But just now I and my master have need of you, and you can turn your stout blade to better service than that of the Sheriff."
"Whose service would that be?" asked the cook.
"Mine," answered a would-be butcher entering the room, "and I am Robin Hood."
HOW THE SHERIFF LOST THREE GOOD SERVANTS AND FOUND THEM AGAIN
"Make good cheer," said Robin Hood. "Sheriff! for charity! And for the love of Little John Thy life is granted thee!"
The cook gasped in amazement. This Robin Hood! and under the Sheriff's very roof!
"Now by my troth you are a brave fellow," he said. "I have heard great tales of your prowess, and the half has not been told. But who might this tall slasher be?"
"Men do call me Little John, good fellow."
"Then Little John, or Reynold Greenleaf, I like you well, on my honor as Much the miller's son; and you too, bold Robin Hood. An you take me, I will enter your service right gladly."
"Spoken like a stout man!" said Robin, seizing him by the hand. "But I must back to my own bed, lest some sleepy warden stumble upon me, and I be forced to run him through. Lucky for you twain that wine flowed so freely in the house to-day; else the noise of your combat would have brought other onlookers besides Robin Hood. Now if ye would flee the house to-night, I will join you in the good greenwood to-morrow."
"But, good master," said the cook, "you would not stay here over night! Verily, it is running your head into a noose. Come with us. The Sheriff has set strict watch on all the gates, since 'tis Fair week, but I know the warden at the west gate and could bring us through safely. To-morrow you will be stayed." "Nay, that will I not," laughed Robin, "for I shall go through with no less escort than the Sheriff himself. Now do you, Little John, and do you, Much the miller's son, go right speedily. In the borders of the wood you will find my merry men. Tell them to kill two fine harts against to-morrow eve, for we shall have great company and lordly sport."
And Robin left them as suddenly as he had come.
"Comrade," then said Little John, "we may as well bid the Sheriff's roof farewell. But ere we go, it would seem a true pity to fail to take such of the Sheriff's silver plate as will cause us to remember him, and also grace our special feasts."
"'Tis well said indeed," quoth the cook.
Thereupon they got a great sack and filled it with silver plate from the shelves where it would not at once be missed, and they swung the sack between them, and away they went, out of the house, out of the town, and into the friendly shelter of Sherwood Forest.
The next morning the servants were late astir in the Sheriff's house. The steward awoke from a heavy sleep, but his cracked head was still in such a whirl that he could not have sworn whether the Sheriff had ever owned so much as one silver dish. So the theft went undiscovered for the nonce.
Robin Hood met the Sheriff at breakfast, when his host soon spoke of what was uppermost in his heart—the purchase of the fine herd of cattle near Gamewell. 'Twas clear that a vision of them, purchased for twenty paltry gold pieces, had been with him all through the night, in his dreams. And Robin again appeared such a silly fellow that the Sheriff saw no need of dissembling, but said that he was ready to start at once to look at the herd.
Accordingly they set forth, Robin in his little butcher's cart, behind the lean mare, and the Sheriff mounted on a horse. Out of Nottingham town, through gates open wide, they proceeded, and took the hill road leading through Sherwood Forest. And as they went on and plunged deeper among the trees, Robin whistled blithely and sang snatches of tunes.
"Why are you so gay, fellow?" said the Sheriff, for, sooth to say, the silence of the woods was making him uneasy.
"I am whistling to keep my courage up," replied Robin.
"What is there to fear, when you have the Sheriff of Nottingham beside you?" quoth the other pompously.
Robin scratched his head.
"They do say that Robin Hood and his men care little for the Sheriff," he said.
"Pooh!" said the Sheriff. "I would not give that for their lives, if I could once lay hands upon them." And he snapped his fingers angrily. "But Robin Hood himself was on this very road the last time I came to town," said the other.
The Sheriff started at the crackling of a twig under his horse's feet, and looked around.
"Did you see him?" he asked.
"Aye, that did I! He wanted the use of this mare and cart to drive to Nottingham. He said he would fain turn butcher. But see!"
As he spoke he came to a turn in the road, and there before them stood a herd of the King's deer, feeding. Robin pointed to them and continued:
"There is my herd of cattle, good Master Sheriff! How do you like them? Are they not fat and fair to see?"
The Sheriff drew rein quickly. "Now fellow," quoth he, "I would I were well out of this forest, for I care not to see such herds as these, or such faces as yours. Choose your own way, therefore, whoever you be, and let me go mine."
"Nay," laughed Robin, seizing the Sheriff's bridle, "I have been at too much pains to cultivate your company to forego it now so easily. Besides I wish you to meet some of my friends and dine with me, since you have so lately entertained me at your board."
So saying he clapped a horn on his lips and winded three merry notes. The deer bounded away; and before the last of them was seen, there came a running and a rustling, and out from behind covert and tree came full twoscore of men, clad in Lincoln green, and bearing good yew bows in their hands and short swords at their sides. Up they ran to Robin Hood and doffed their caps to him respectfully, while the Sheriff sat still from very amazement.
"Welcome to the greenwood!" said one of the leaders, bending the knee with mock reverence before the Sheriff.
The Sheriff glared. It was Little John.
"Woe the worth, Reynold Greenleaf," he said, "you have betrayed me!"
"I make my vow," said Little John, "that you are to blame, master. I was misserved of my dinner, when I was at your house. But we shall set you down to a feast we hope you will enjoy."
"Well spoken, Little John," said Robin Hood. "Take you his bridle and let us do honor to the guest who has come to feast with us."
Then turning abruptly the whole company plunged into the heart of the forest.
After twisting and turning till the Sheriff's bewildered head sat dizzily upon his shoulders, the greenwood men passed through a narrow alley amid the trees which led to a goodly open space flanked by wide-spreading oaks. Under the largest of these a pleasant fire was crackling, and near it two fine harts lay ready for cooking. Around the blaze were gathered another company of yeomen quite as large as that which came with Robin Hood. Up sprang they as the latter advanced and saluted their leader with deference, but with hearty gladness to see him back again.
That merry wag Will Stutely was in command; and when he saw the palefaced Sheriff being led in like any culprit, he took his cloak and laid it humbly upon the ground and besought the Sheriff to alight upon it, as the ground of Sherwood was unused to such dignitaries.
"Bestir yourselves, good fellows!" cried Robin Hood; "and while our new cook, whom I see with us, is preparing a feast worthy of our high guest, let us have a few games to do him honor!"
Then while the whole glade was filled with the savory smell of roasting venison and fat capons, and brown pasties warmed beside the blaze, and mulled wine sent forth a cordial fragrance, Robin Hood placed the Sheriff upon a knoll beneath the largest oak and sat himself down by him.
First stepped forward several pairs of men armed with the quarter-staff, the widow's sons among them, and so skilfully did they thrust and parry and beat down guards, that the Sheriff, who loved a good game as well as any man, clapped his hands, forgetting where he was, and shouted, "Well struck! well struck! Never have I seen such blows at all the Fairs of Nottingham!"
Then the best archers of the band set up a small wand at eightscore paces distant, and thereon they affixed a wreath of green. And the archers began to shoot; and he who shot not through the garland without disturbing its leaves and tendrils was fain to submit to a good sound buffet from Little John. But right cunning was the shooting, for the men had spent a certain time in daily practice, and many were the shafts which sped daintily through the circle. Nathless now and again some luckless fellow would shoot awry and would be sent winding from a long arm blow from the tall lieutenant while the glade roared with laughter. And none more hearty a guffaw was given than came from the Sheriff's own throat, for the spirit of the greenwood was upon him.
But presently his high mood was dashed. The company sat down to meat, and the guest was treated to two more disturbing surprise. The cook came forward to serve the food, when the Sheriff beheld in him his own former servant, and one whom he supposed was at the moment in the scullery at Nottingham.
Much the miller's son grinned by way of answer to the Sheriff's amazement, and served the plates, and placed them before the party. Then did the Sheriff gasp and fairly choke with rage. The service was his own silverware from the Mansion House!
"You rascals! you rogues!" he spluttered. "Was it not enough to defraud me out of three of my servants, that you must also rob me of my best silver service? Nay, by my life, but I will not touch your food!"
But Robin Hood bade him pause.
"Gramercy!" quoth he, "servants come and go, in merry England, and so does service. The platters are but used to do your worship honor. And as for your life, it is forfeit to your eagerness to buy my herd of cattle so cheaply. Now sit you down again and make good cheer, Sheriff, for charity! And for the love of Little John your life is granted you!"
So the Sheriff sat him down again, with the best face he could assume, and soon the cook's viands were disappearing down his gullet as rapidly as the next man's. And they feasted royally and clinked each other's cups until the sun had ceased to print the pattern of the leaves upon the forest carpet.
Then the Sheriff arose and said: "I thank you, Robin Hood, one-time butcher, and you, Little John, one-time beggar, and you, Much, one-time cook, and all you good men who have entertained me in Sherwood so well. Promises I make not as to how I shall requite you when next you come to Nottingham, for I am in the King's service. So for the present the score rests with you. But the shadows grow long and I must away, if you will be pleased to pilot me to the road."
Then Robin Hood and all his men arose and drank the Sheriff's health, and Robin said: "If you must needs go at once we will not detain you—except that you have forgotten two things."
"What may they be?" asked the Sheriff, while his heart sank within him.
"You forget that you came with me to-day to buy a herd of horned beasts; likewise that he who dines at the Greenwood Inn must pay the landlord."
The Sheriff fidgeted like a small boy who has forgotten his lesson.
"Nay, I have but a small sum with me," he began apologetically.
"What is that sum, gossip?" questioned Little John, "for my own wage should also come out of it!"
"And mine!" said Much.
"And mine!" smiled Robin.
The Sheriff caught his breath. "By my troth, are all these silver dishes worth anything?"
The outlaws roared heartily at this.
"I'll tell you what it is, worship," said Robin, "we three rascally servants will compound our back wages for those plates. And we will keep the herd of cattle free for our own use—and the King's. But this little tavern bill should be settled! Now, what sum have you about you?"
"I have only those twenty pieces of gold, and twenty others," said the Sheriff: and well it was that he told the truth for once, for Robin said:
"Count it, Little John."
Little John turned the Sheriff's wallet inside out. "'Tis true enough," he said.
"Then you shall pay no more than twenty pieces for your entertainment, excellence," decreed Robin. "Speak I soothly, men of greenwood?"
"Good!" echoed the others.
"The Sheriff should swear by his patron saint that he will not molest us," said Will Stutely; and his addition was carried unanimously.
"So be it, then," cried Little John, approaching the sheriff. "Now swear by your life and your patron saint—"
"I will swear it by St. George, who is patron of us all," said the Sheriff vigorously, "that I will never disturb or distress the outlaws in Sherwood."
"But let me catch any of you out of Sherwood!" thought he to himself.
Then the twenty pieces of gold were paid over, and the Sheriff once more prepared to depart.
"Never had we so worshipful a guest before," said Robin; "and as the new moon is beginning to silver the leaves, I shall bear you company myself for part of the way. 'Twas I who brought you into the wood."
"Nay, I protest against your going needlessly far," said Sheriff.
"But I protest that I am loath to lose your company," replied Robin. "The next time I may not be so pleased."
And he took the Sheriff's horse by the bridle rein, and led him through the lane and by many a thicket till the main road was reached.
"Now fare you well, good Sheriff," he said, "and when next you think to despoil a poor prodigal, remember the herd you would have bought over against Gamewell. And when next you employ a servant, make certain that he is not employing you."
So saying he smote the nag's haunch, and off went the Sheriff upon the road to Nottingham.
And that is how—you will find from many ballads that came to be sung at the Sheriff's expense, and which are known even to the present day—that, I say, is how the Sheriff lost three good servants and found them again.
HOW ROBIN HOOD MET WILL SCARLET
The youngster was clothed in scarlet red In scarlet fine and gay; And he did frisk it o'er the plain, And chanted a roundelay.
One fine morning, soon after the proud Sheriff had been brought to grief, Robin Hood and Little John went strolling down a path through the wood. It was not far from the foot—bridge where they had fought their memorable battle; and by common impulse they directed their steps to the brook to quench their thirst and rest them in the cool bushes. The morning gave promise of a hot day. The road even by the brook was dusty. So the cooling stream was very pleasing and grateful to their senses.
On each side of them, beyond the dusty highway, stretched out broad fields of tender young corn. On the yon side of the fields uprose the sturdy oaks and beeches and ashes of the forest; while at their feet modest violets peeped out shyly and greeted the loiterers with an odor which made the heart glad. Over on the far side of the brook in a tiny bay floated three lily-pads; and from amid some clover blossoms on the bank an industrious bee rose with the hum of busy contentment. It was a day so brimful of quiet joy that the two friends lay flat on their backs gazing up at the scurrying clouds, and neither caring to break the silence.
Presently they heard some one coming up the road whistling gaily, as though he owned the whole world and 'twas but made to whistle in. Anon he chanted a roundelay with a merry note.
"By my troth, a gay bird!" quoth Robin, raising up on his elbow. "Let us lie still, and trust that his purse is not as light as his heart."
So they lay still, and in a minute more up came a smart stranger dressed in scarlet and silk and wearing a jaunty hat with a curling cock feather in it. His whole costume was of scarlet, from the feather to the silk hosen on his legs. A goodly sword hung at his side, its scabbard all embossed with tilting knights and weeping ladies. His hair was long and yellow and hung clustering about his shoulders, for all the world like a schoolgirl's; and he bore himself with as mincing a gait as the pertest of them.
Little John clucked his teeth drolly at this sight. "By my troth, a gay bird!" he said echoing the other's words—then added, "But not so bad a build for all his prettiness. Look you, those calves and thighs are well rounded and straight. The arms, for all that gold-wrought cloak, hang stoutly from full shoulders. I warrant you the fop can use his dainty sword right well on occasion."
"Nay," retorted Robin, "he is naught but a ladies' man from court. My long-bow 'gainst a plugged shilling that he would run and bellow lustily at sight of a quarter-staff. Stay you behind this bush and I will soon get some rare sport out of him. Belike his silk purse may contain more pennies than the law allows to one man in Sherwood or Barnesdale."
So saying Robin Hood stepped forth briskly from the covert and planted himself in the way of the scarlet stranger. The latter had walked so slowly that he was scarce come to their resting-place; and now on beholding Robin he neither slackened nor quickened his pace but sauntered idly straight ahead, looking to the right and to the left, with the finest air in the world, but never once at Robin.
"Hold!" quoth the outlaw. "What mean ye by running thus over a wayfarer, rough shod?"
"Wherefore should I hold, good fellow?" said the stranger in a smooth voice, and looking at Robin for the first time.
"Because I bid you to," replied Robin.
"And who may you be?" asked the other as coolly as you please.
"What my name is matters not," said Robin; "but know that I am a public tax-gatherer and equalizer of shillings. If your purse have more than a just number of shillings or pence, I must e'en lighten it somewhat; for there are many worthy people round about these borders who have less than the just amount. Wherefore, sweet gentleman, I pray you hand over your purse without more ado, that I may judge of its weight in proper fashion."
The other smiled as sweetly as though a lady were paying him a compliment.
"You are a droll fellow," he said calmly. "Your speech amuses me mightily. Pray continue, if you have not done, for I am in no hurry this morning."
"I have said all with my tongue that is needful," retorted Robin, beginning to grow red under the collar. "Nathless, I have other arguments which may not be so pleasing to your dainty skin. Prithee, stand and deliver. I promise to deal fairly with the purse."
"Alack-a-day!" said the stranger with a little shrug of his shoulders; "I am deeply sorrowful that I cannot show my purse to every rough lout that asks to see it. But I really could not, as I have further need of it myself and every farthing it contains. Wherefore, pray stand aside."
"Nay that will I not! and 'twill go the harder with you if you do not yield at once."
"Good fellow," said the other gently, "have I not heard all your speech with patience? Now that is all I promised to do. My conscience is salved and I must go on my way. To-rol-o-rol-e-loo!" he caroled, making as though to depart.
"Hold, I say!" quoth Robin hotly; for he knew how Little John must be chuckling at this from behind the bushes. "Hold I say, else I shall have to bloody those fair locks of yours!" And he swung his quarter-staff threateningly.
"Alas!" moaned the stranger shaking his head. "The pity of it all! Now I shall have to run this fellow through with my sword! And I hoped to be a peaceable man henceforth!" And sighing deeply he drew his shining blade and stood on guard.
"Put by your weapon," said Robin. "It is too pretty a piece of steel to get cracked with common oak cudgel; and that is what would happen on the first pass I made at you. Get you a stick like mine out of yon undergrowth, and we will fight fairly, man to man."
The stranger thought a moment with his usual slowness, and eyed Robin from head to foot. Then he unbuckled his scabbard, laid it and the sword aside, and walked deliberately over to the oak thicket. Choosing from among the shoots and saplings he found a stout little tree to his liking, when he laid hold of it, without stopping to cut it, and gave a tug. Up it came root and all, as though it were a stalk of corn, and the stranger walked back trimming it as quietly as though pulling up trees were the easiest thing in the world.
Little John from his hiding-place saw the feat, and could hardly restrain a long whistle. "By our Lady!" he muttered to himself, "I would not be in Master Robin's boots!"
Whatever Robin thought upon seeing the stranger's strength, he uttered not a word and budged not an inch. He only put his oak staff at parry as the other took his stand.
There was a threefold surprise that day, by the brookside. The stranger and Robin and Little John in the bushes all found a combat that upset all reckoning. The stranger for all his easy strength and cool nerve found an antagonist who met his blows with the skill of a woodman. Robin found the stranger as hard to hit as though fenced in by an oak hedge. While Little John rolled over and over in silent joy.
Back and forth swayed the fighters, their cudgels pounding this way and that, knocking off splinters and bark, and threatening direst damage to bone and muscle and skin. Back and forth they pranced kicking up a cloud of dust and gasping for fresh air. From a little way off you would have vowed that these two men were trying to put out a fire, so thickly hung the cloud of battle over them. Thrice did Robin smite the scarlet man—with such blows that a less stout fellow must have bowled over. Only twice did the scarlet man smite Robin, but the second blow was like to finish him. The first had been delivered over the knuckles, and though 'twas a glancing stroke it well nigh broke Robin's fingers, so that he could not easily raise his staff again. And while he was dancing about in pain and muttering a dust-covered oath, the other's staff came swinging through the cloud at one side—zip!—and struck him under the arm. Down went Robin as though he were a nine-pin—flat down into the dust of the road. But despite the pain he was bounding up again like an India rubber man to renew the attack, when Little John interfered.
"Hold!" said he, bursting out of the bushes and seizing the stranger's weapon. "Hold, I say!"
"Nay," retorted the stranger quietly, "I was not offering to smite him while he was down. But if there be a whole nest of you hatching here by the waterside, cluck out the other chicks and I'll make shift to fight them all."
"Not for all the deer in Sherwood!" cried Robin. "You are a good fellow and a gentleman. I'll fight no more with you, for verily I feel sore in wrist and body. Nor shall any of mine molest you henceforth."
Sooth to say, Robin did not look in good fighting trim. His clothes were coated with dirt, one of his hosen had slipped halfway down from his knee, the sleeve of his jerkin was split, and his face was streaked with sweat and dirt. Little John eyed him drolly.
"How now, good master," quoth he, "the sport you were to kick up has left you in sorry plight. Let me dust your coat for you."
"Marry, it has been dusted enough already," replied Robin; "and I now believe the Scripture saying that all men are but dust, for it has sifted me through and through and lined my gullet an inch deep. By your leave"—and he went to the brookside and drank deep and laved his face and hands.
All this while the stranger had been eyeing Robin attentively and listening to his voice as though striving to recall it.
"If I mistake not," he said slowly at last, "you are that famous outlaw, Robin Hood of Barnesdale."
"You say right," replied Robin; "but my fame has been tumbling sadly about in the dust to-day."
"Now why did I not know you at once?" continued the stranger. "This battle need not have happened, for I came abroad to find you to-day, and thought to have remembered your face and speech. Know you not me, Rob, my lad? Hast ever been to Gamewell Lodge?"
"Ha! Will Gamewell! my dear old chum, Will Gamewell!" shouted Robin, throwing his arms about the other in sheer affection. "What an ass I was not to recognize you! But it has been years since we parted, and your gentle schooling has polished you off mightily."
Will embraced his cousin no less heartily.
"We are quits on not knowing kinsmen," he said, "for you have changed and strengthened much from the stripling with whom I used to run foot races in old Sherwood."
"But why seek you me?" asked Robin. "You know I am an outlaw and dangerous company. And how left you mine uncle? and have you heard aught of late of—of Maid Marian?"
"Your last question first," answered Will, laughing, "for I perceive that it lies nearest your heart. I saw Maid Marian not many weeks after the great shooting at Nottingham, when you won her the golden arrow. She prizes the bauble among her dearest possessions, though it has made her an enemy in the Sheriff's proud daughter. Maid Marian bade me tell you, if I ever saw you, that she must return to Queen Eleanor's court, but she could never forget the happy days in the greenwood. As for the old Squire, he is still hale and hearty, though rheumatic withal. He speaks of you as a sad young dog, but for all that is secretly proud of your skill at the bow and of the way you are pestering the Sheriff, whom he likes not. 'Twas for my father's sake that I am now in the open, an outlaw like yourself. He has had a steward, a surly fellow enough, who, while I was away at school, boot-licked his way to favor until he lorded it over the whole house. Then he grew right saucy and impudent, but my father minded it not, deeming the fellow indispensable in managing the estate. But when I came back it irked me sorely to see the fellow strut about as though he owned the place. He was sly enough with me at first, and would brow-beat the Squire only while I was out of earshot. It chanced one day, however, that I heard loud voices through an open window and paused to hearken. That vile servant called my father 'a meddling old fool,' 'Fool and meddler art thou thyself, varlet,' I shouted, springing through the window, 'that for thy impudence!' and in my heat I smote him a blow mightier than I intended, for I have some strength in mine arm. The fellow rolled over and never breathed afterwards, I think I broke his neck or something the like. Then I knew that the Sheriff would use this as a pretext to hound my father, if I tarried. So I bade the Squire farewell and told him I would seek you in Sherwood."
"Now by my halidom!" said Robin Hood; "for a man escaping the law, you took it about as coolly as one could wish. To see you come tripping along decked out in all your gay plumage and trolling forth a roundelay, one would think you had not a care in all the world. Indeed I remarked to Little John here that I hoped your purse was not as light as your heart."
"Belike you meant head," laughed Will; "and is this Little John the Great? Shake hands with me, an you will, and promise me to cross a staff with me in friendly bout some day in the forest!"
"That will I!" quoth Little John heartily. "Here's my hand on it. What is your last name again, say you?"
"'Tis to be changed," interposed Robin; "then shall the men armed with warrants go hang for all of us. Let me bethink myself. Ah!—I have it! In scarlet he came to us, and that shall be his name henceforth. Welcome to the greenwood, Will Scarlet!"
"Aye, welcome, Will Scarlet!" said Little John; and they all clasped hands again and swore to be true each to the other and to Robin Hood's men in Sherwood Forest.
HOW ROBIN HOOD MET FRIAR TUCK
The friar took Robin Hood on his back, Deep water he did bestride, And spake neither good word nor bad, Till he came at the other side.
In summer time when leaves grow green, and flowers are fresh and gay, Robin Hood and his merry men were all disposed to play. Thus runs a quaint old ballad which begins the next adventure. Then some would leap and some would run and some try archery and some ply the quarter-staff and some fall to with the good broad sword. Some again would try a round at buffet and fisticuff; and thus by every variety of sport and exercise they perfected themselves in skill and made the band and its prowess well known throughout all England.
It had been a custom of Robin Hood's to pick out the best men in all the countryside. Whenever he heard of one more than usually skilled in any feat of arms he would seek the man and test him in personal encounter—which did not always end happily for Robin. And when he had found a man to his liking he offered him service with the bold fellows of Sherwood Forest.
Thus it came about that one day after a practice at shooting, in which Little John struck down a hart at five hundred feet distance, Robin Hood was fain to boast.
"God's blessing on your heart!" he cried, clapping the burly fellow on the shoulder; "I would travel an hundred miles to find one who could match you!"
At this Will Scarlet laughed full roundly.
"There lives a curtall friar in Fountain's Abbey—Tuck, by name—who can beat both him and you," he said.
Robin pricked up his ears at this free speech.
"By our Lady," he said, "I'll neither eat nor drink till I see this same friar."
And with his usual impetuosity he at once set about arming himself for the adventure. On his head he placed a cap of steel. Underneath his Lincoln green he wore a coat of chain metal. Then with sword and buckler girded at his side he made a goodly show. But he also took with him his stout yew bow and a sheaf of chosen arrows.
So he set forth upon his way with blithe heart; for it was a day when the whole face of the earth seemed glad and rejoicing in pulsing life. Steadily he pressed forward by winding ways till he came to a green broad pasture land at whose edge flowed a stream dipping in and out among the willows and rushes on the banks. A pleasant stream it was, but it flowed calmly as though of some depth in the middle. Robin did not fancy getting his feet wet, or his fine suit of mail rusted, so he paused on the hither bank to rest and take his bearings.
As he sat down quietly under the shade of a drooping willow he heard snatches of a jovial song floating to him from the farther side; then came a sound of two men's voices arguing. One was upholding the merits of hasty pudding and the other stood out stoutly for meat pie, "especially"—quoth this one—"when flavored with young onions!"
"Gramercy!" muttered Robin to himself, "that is a tantalizing speech to a hungry man! But, odds bodikins! did ever two men talk more alike than those two fellows yonder!"
In truth Robin could well marvel at the speech, for the voices were curiously alike.
Presently the willows parted on the other bank, and Robin could hardly forebear laughing out right. His mystery was explained. It was not two men who had done all this singing and talking, but one—and that one a stout curtall friar who wore a long cloak over his portly frame, tied with a cord in the middle. On his head was a knight's helmet, and in his hand was a no more warlike weapon than a huge pasty pie, with which he sat down by the water's edge. His twofold argument was finished. The meat pie had triumphed; and no wonder! for it was the present witness, soon to give its own testimony.
But first the friar took off his helmet to cool his head, and a droll picture he made. His head was as round as an apple, and eke as smooth in spots. A fringe of close curling black hair grew round the base of his skull, but his crown was bare and shiny as an egg. His cheeks also were smooth and red and shiny; and his little gray eyes danced about with the funniest air imaginable. You would not have blamed Robin Hood for wanting to laugh, had you heard this serious two-faced talk and then seen this jovial one-faced man. Good humor and fat living stood out all over him; yet for all that he looked stout enough and able to take care of himself with any man. His short neck was thick like that of a Berkshire bull; his shoulders were set far back, and his arms sprouted therefrom like two oak limbs. As he sat him down, the cloak fell apart disclosing a sword and buckler as stout as Robin's own.
Nathless, Robin was not dismayed at sight of the weapons. Instead, his heart fell within him when he saw the meat pie which was now in fair way to be devoured before his very eyes; for the friar lost no time in thrusting one hand deep into the pie, while he crossed himself with the other.