ILLUSTRATED BY N. C. WYETH
DAVID MCKAY, PUBLISHER
ROBIN AND HIS MOTHER GO TO NOTTINGHAM FAIR 18 The road wound in and about the forest, and at noon they came to a part where the trees nigh shut out the sky
ROBIN WRESTLES WILL STUTELEY AT GAMEWELL 53 "Catch him by the middle," he shouted. "Now you have him, lording, fairly. Throw him prettily!" And sure enough Stuteley came down
ROBIN MEETS MAID MARIAN 116 But Robin, venturing all, drew nigh. He came to the edge of her box, and began to speak
ROBIN HOOD AND HIS COMPANIONS LEND AID TO WILL O' TH' GREEN FROM AMBUSH 156 Their arrows flew together, marvellous shots, each finding its prey
LITTLE JOHN FIGHTS WITH THE COOK IN THE SHERIFF'S HOUSE 197 At last he made a dart upon Roger and the chase grew furious. Dishes, plates, covers, pots and pans—all that came in the way of them went flying
ROBIN HOOD DEFEATS NAT OF NOTTINGHAM AT QUARTER-STAFF 257 The beggar dealt his foe a back-thrust so neatly, so heartily, and so swiftly that Nat was swept off the stage into the crowd as a fly off a table
LITTLE JOHN SINGS A SONG AT THE BANQUET 327 That evening, whilst Monceux raged and stormed without, they all sat to a great feast
THE PASSING OF ROBIN HOOD 361 Leaning heavily against Little John's sobbing breast, Robin Hood flew his last arrow out through the window, far away into the deep green of trees
ROBIN HOOD AND HIS ADVENTURES
"Well, Robin, on what folly do you employ yourself? Do you cut sticks for our fire o' mornings?" Thus spoke Master Hugh Fitzooth, King's Ranger of the Forest at Locksley, as he entered his house.
Robin flushed a little. "These are arrows, sir," he announced, holding one up for inspection.
Dame Fitzooth smiled upon the boy as she rose to meet her lord. "What fortune do you bring us to-day, father?" asked she, cheerily.
Fitzooth's face was a mask of discontent. "I bring myself, dame," answered he, "neither more nor less."
"Surely that is enough for Robin and me!" laughed his wife. "Come, cast off your shoes, and give me your bow and quiver. I have news for you, Hugh, even if you have none for us. George of Gamewell has sent his messenger to-day, and bids me bring Robin to him for the Fair." She hesitated to give the whole truth.
"That cannot be," began the Ranger, hastily; then checked himself. "What wind is it that blows our Squire's friendship toward me, I wonder?" he went on. "Do we owe him toll?"
"You are not fair to George Montfichet, Hugh—he is an open, honest man, and he is my brother." The dame spoke with spirit, being vexed that her husband should thus slight her item of news. "That Montfichet is of Norman blood is sufficient to turn your thoughts of him as sour as old milk——"
"I am as good as all the Montfichets and De Veres hereabout, dame, for all I am but plain Saxon," returned Fitzooth, crossly, "and the day may come when they shall know it. Athelstane the Saxon might make full as good a King, when Henry dies, as Richard of Acquitaine, with his harebrained notions and runagate religion. There would be bobbing of heads and curtseying to us then, if you like. Squire George of Gamewell would be sending messengers for me cap in hand—doubt it not."
"For that matter, there is ready welcome for you now at my brother's house," said Mistress Fitzooth, repenting of her sharpness at once. "Montfichet bade us all to Gamewell; but here is his scroll, and you may read it for yourself." She took a scroll from her bosom as she spoke and offered it to her husband.
He returned to the open door that he might read it. His brow puckered itself as he strove to decipher the flourished Norman writing. "I have no leisure now for this screed, mother; read it to me later, an you will."
His tone was kinder again, for he saw how Robin had been busying himself in these last few moments. "Let us sup, mother. I dare swear we all are hungry after the heat of the day."
"I have made and tipped a full score of arrows, sir; will you see them?" asked Robin.
"That will I, so soon as I have found the bottom of this pasty. Sit yourselves, mother and Robin, and we'll chatter afterwards."
Robin helped his mother to kindle the flax whereby the dim and flickering tapers might be lighted. His fingers were more deft at this business, it would seem, than in the making of arrows. Fitzooth, in the intervals of his eating, took up Robin's arrows one by one and had some shrewd gibe ready for most of them. Of the score only five were allowed to pass; the rest were tossed contemptuously into the black hearth on to the little heap of smouldering fire.
"By my heart, Robin, but I shall never make a proper bowman of you! Were ever such shafts fashioned to fit across cord and yew!"
"The arrows are pretty enough, Hugh," interposed the dame.
"There 'tis!" cried Fitzooth, triumphantly. "The true bowman's hand showeth not in the prettiness of an arrow, mother, but in the straightness and hardness of the wand. Our Robin can fly a shaft right well, I grant you, and I have no question for his skill, but he cannot yet make me an arrow such as I love."
"Well, I do think them right handsomely done," said Mistress Fitzooth, unconvinced. "It is not given to everyone to make such arrows as you can, husband; but my Robin has other accomplishments. He can play upon the harp sweetly, and sing you a good song——"
Fitzooth must still grumble, however. "I would rather your fingers should bend the bow than pluck at harp-strings, Robin," growled he. "Still, there is time for all things. Read me now our brother's message."
Robin, eager to atone for the faults of his arrows, stretched out the paper upon the table, and read aloud the following:—
"From George a Court Montfichet, of the Hall at Gamewell, near Nottingham, Squire of the Hundreds of Sandwell and Sherwood, giving greetings and praying God's blessing on his sister Eleanor and on her husband, Master Hugh Fitzooth, Ranger of the King's Forest at Locksley. Happiness be with you all. I do make you this screed in the desire that you will both of you ride to me at Gamewell, in the light of to-morrow, the fifth day of June, bringing with you our young kinsman Robin. There is a Fair toward at Nottingham for three days of this week, and we are to expect great and astonishing marvels to be performed at it.
"Wherefore, seeing that it will doubtless give him satisfaction and some knowledge (for who can witness wonders without being the wiser for them?), fail not to present yourselves as I honestly wish. I also ask that Robin shall stay with me for the space of one year at least, having no son now and being a lonely man. Him will I treat as my own child in all ways, and return him to you in the June of next year.
"This I send by the hand of Warrenton, my man-at-arms, who shall bear me your reply.
"Given under our hand at Gamewell, the 4th day of June, in the year of grace one thousand one hundred and eighty-eight.
Robin's clear voice ceased, and silence fell upon them all. Fitzooth guessed that both his son and wife waited anxiously for his decision; yet he had so great a pride that he could not at once agree to the courteous invitation.
For himself he had no doubt. Nothing would move Fitzooth to mix with the fine folk of Nottingham whilst his claims to the acres of Broadweald, in Lancashire, went unrecognized. It was an old story, and although, by virtue of his office as Ranger at Locksley, Hugh Fitzooth might very properly claim an honorable position in the county, he swore not to avail himself of it unless he could have a better one. The bar sinister stayed him from Broadweald, so the judges had said, and haughty Fitzooth had perforce to bear with their finding. The king had been much interested in the suit, the estate being a large one, situated in the County Palatine of England, and the matter had caused some stir in the Court. When Fitzooth had failed, Henry, anxious to find favor with his Saxon subjects, had bestowed on him the keeping of a part of the forest of Sherwood, in Nottingham.
So Fitzooth, plain "master" now for good and aye, had come to Locksley, a little village at the further side of the forest, and had taken up the easy duties allotted to him. Here he had nursed his pride in loneliness for some years; then had met one day Eleanor Montfichet a-hunting in the woods. He had unbent to her, and she gave him her simple, true heart.
Strange pair, thrown together by Fate, in sooth; yet no man could say that this was an unhappy union. Within a year came black-eyed Robin to them, and they worshipped their child. But as time passed, and Hugh's claims were again put aside, his nature began to go sour once more. Now they were lonely, unfriendly folk, with no society other than that of the worthy Clerk of Copmanhurst—a hermit too. He had taught Robin his Latin grace, and had given him a fair knowledge of Norman, Saxon, and the middle tongues.
"Say that we all may go to-morrow, father," cried Robin, breaking the silence. "I have never seen Nottingham Fair, sir, and you have promised to take me often."
"I cannot leave this place; for there is my work, and robbers are to be found even here. I have to post my foresters each day in their tasks, and see that the deer be not killed and stolen."
He paused, and then, noting the disappointment in his son's face, relented. "Yet, since there is the Fair, and I have promised it, Robin, you shall go with your mother to Gamewell, if so be the Friar of Copmanhurst can go also. So get ready your clothes, for I know that you would wish to be at your best in our brother's hall. I will speed you to-morrow so far as Copmanhurst, and will send two hinds to serve you to Nottingham gates."
"Warrenton, my brother's man, spoke grievously of the outlaw bands near Gamewell, and told how he had to journey warily," So spoke Mistress Fitzooth, trying yet to bring her husband to say that he too would go.
"The Sheriff administers his portion of the forest very abominably then," returned Fitzooth. "We have no fears and whinings here; but I do not doubt that Warrenton chattered with a view to test our courage, or perchance to make more certain of my refusal."
"But we are to go, are we not, sir?" Robin was anxious again, for his father's tone had already changed.
"I have said it; and there it ends," said Fitzooth, shortly. "If the clerk will make the journey you shall make it too. Further, an the Squire will have you, you shall stay at Gamewell and learn the tricks and prettinesses of Court and town. But look to your bow for use in life, and to your own hands and eyes for help. Kiss me, Robin, and get to bed. Learn all you can; and if Warrenton can show you how to fashion arrows within the year I'll ask no more of brother George of Gamewell."
"You shall be proud of me, sir; I swear it. But I will not stay longer than a month; for I am to watch over my mother's garden."
"Never will shafts such as yours find quarry, Robin. I think that they would sooner kill the archer than the birds. There, mind not my jesting. Men shall talk of you; and I may live to hear them. Be just always; and be honest."
* * * * *
The day broke clear and sweet. From Locksley to the borders of Sherwood Forest was but a stone's cast.
Robin was in high glee, and had been awake long ere daylight. He had dressed himself in his best doublet, green trunk hose, and pointed shoes, and had strung and unstrung his bow full a score of times. A sumpter mule had been saddled to carry the baggage, for the dame had, at the last moment, discovered a wondrous assortment of fineries and fripperies that most perforce be translated to Gamewell.
Robin was carolling like any bird.
"Are you glad to be leaving Locksley, my son?" asked Hugh Fitzooth.
"'Tis a dull place, no doubt. And glad to be leaving home too?"
"No, sir; only happy at the thought of the Fair. Doubt it not that I shall be returned to you long ere a month is gone."
"A year, Robin, a year! Twelve changing months ere you will see me again. I have given my word now. Keep me a place in your heart, Robin."
"You have it all now, sir, be sure, and I am not really so glad within as I seem without."
"Tut, I am not chiding you. Get you upon your jennet, dame; and, Robin, do you show the way. Roderick and the other shall lead the baggage mule. Have you pikes with you, men, and full sheaths?"
"I have brought me a dagger, father," cried Robin, joyfully.
So, bravely they set forth from their quiet house at Locksley, and came within the hour to Copmanhurst. Here only were the ruins of the chapel and the clerk's hermitage, a rude stone building of two small rooms.
Enclosed with high oaken stakes and well guarded by two gaunt hounds was the humble abode of the anchorite.
The clerk came to the verge of his enclosure to greet them, and stood peering above the palisade. "Give you good morrow, father," cried Robin; "get your steed and tie up the dogs. We go to Nottingham this day and you are to come with us!"
The monk shook his head. "I may not leave this spot, child, for matters of vanity," he answered, in would-be solemn tones.
"Will you not ride with the dame and my son, father?" asked Fitzooth. "George of Gamewell has sent in for Robin, and I wish that you should journey with him, giving him such sage counsel as may fit him for a year's service in the great and worshipful company that he now may meet."
"Come with us to-day, father," urged Mistress Fitzooth also. "I have brought a veal pasty and some bread, so that we may not be hungry on the road. Also, there is a flask of wine."
"Nay, daughter, I have no thought for the carnal things of life. I will go with you, since the Ranger of Locksley orders it. It is my place to obey him whom the King has put in charge of our greenwood. Bide here whilst I make brief preparation."
His eyes had twinkled, though, when the dame had spoken; and one could see that 'twas not on roots and fresh water alone that the clerk had thrived. Full and round were the lines of him under his monkly gown; and his face was red as any harvest moon.
Hugh bade farewell briefly to them, while the clerk was tying up his hounds and chattering with them.
When the clerk was ready Fitzooth kissed his dame and bade her be firm with their son; then, embracing Robin, ordered him to protect his mother from all mischance. Also he was to bear himself honorably and quietly; and, whilst being courteous to all folk, he was not to give way unduly to anyone who should attempt to browbeat or to cozen him.
"Remember always that your father is a proud man; and see, take those arrows of my own making and learn from them how to trim the hazel. You have a steady hand and bold eye; be a craftsman when you return to Locksley, and I will give you control of some part of the forest, under me. Now, farewell—take my greetings to our brother at Gamewell."
Then the King's Forester turned on his heel and strode back towards Locksley. Once he paused and faced about to wave his cap to them: then his figure vanished into the green of the trees.
A sadness fell upon Robin—unaccountable and perplexing. But the hermit soberly journeyed toward Nottingham, the two men-at-arms, with the sumpter mule, riding in front.
The road wound in and about the forest, and at noon they came to a part where the trees nigh shut out the sky.
Robin spied out a fine old stag, and his fingers itched to fit one of his new arrows to his bow. "These be all of them King's deer, father?" he asked the friar, thoughtfully.
"Every beast within Sherwood, royal or mean, belongs to our King, child."
"Do they not say that Henry is away in a foreign land, father?"
"Ay, but he will return. His deer are not yet to be slain by your arrows, child. When you are Ranger at Locksley, in your father's stead, who shall then say you nay?"
"My father does not shoot the King's deer, except those past their time," answered Robin, quickly. "He tends them, and slays instead any robbers who would maltreat or kill the does. Do you think I could hit yon beast, father? He makes a pretty mark, and my arrow would but prick him?"
The clerk glanced toward Mistress Fitzooth. "Dame," said he, gravely, "do you not think that here, in this cool shadow, we might well stay our travelling? Surely it is near the hour of noon? And," here he sank his voice to a sly whisper, "it would be well perhaps to let this temptation pass away from before our Robin! Else, I doubt not, the King will be one stag the less in Sherwood."
"I like not this dark road, father," began the dame. "We shall surely come to a brighter place. Robin, do you ride near to me, and let your bow be at rest. Warrenton, your uncle's man, told me but yesterday——"
Her voice was suddenly drowned in the noise of a horn, wound so shrilly and distantly as to cause them all to start. Then, in a moment, half a score of lusty rascals appeared, springing out of the earth almost. The men-at-arms were seized, and the little cavalcade brought to a rude halt.
"Toll, toll!" called out the leader. "Toll must you pay, everyone, ere your journey be continued!"
"Forbear," cried Robin, waving his dagger so soon as the man made attempt to take his mother's jennet by the bridle. "Tell me the toll, and the reason for it; and be more mannerly."
The man just then spied that great stag which Robin had longed to shoot, bounding away to the left of them. Swiftly he slipped an arrow across his longbow and winged it after the flying beast.
"A miss, an easy miss!" called Robin, impatiently. Dropping his dagger, he snatched an arrow from his quiver, fitted it to his bow and sent it speeding towards the stag. "Had I but aimed sooner!" murmured Robin, regretfully, when his arrow failed by a yard to reach its quarry; and the clerk held up his hands in pious horror of his words.
"The shot was a long one, young master," spoke the robber, and he stooped to pick up Robin's little weapon. "Here is your bodkin—'tis no fault of yours that the arrow was not true."
They all laughed right merrily; but Robin was vexed.
"Stand away, fellows," said he, "and let us pass on. Else shall you all be whipped."
Again the leader of the band spoke. "Toll first, lording; tender it prettily to us, and you shall only tender it once."
"I'll tender it not at all," retorted young Fitzooth. "Fie upon you for staying a woman upon the King's highroad! Pretty men, forsooth, to attack in so cowardly a fashion!"
"All must buy freedom of the greenwood, master," answered the man, quite civilly. "We, who exact the toll, take no heed of sex. Pay us now, and when you return there shall be no questioning."
"A woman should be a safe convoy and free from all toll," argued Robin. "Now here are my two men."
"Slaves, master; and they have only your mule and the two pikes. It is not enough."
"You will leave us nothing then, it seems," said Dame Fitzooth, in trembling but brave voice.
"There is one thing that we all do value, mistress, and I purpose sparing you that. We will do no one of you any bodily harm."
"Take my purse, then," sighed Mistress Fitzooth. "There is little enough in it, for we are poor folk."
"Ask toll of the Church," cried Robin, staying his mother. "The Church is rich, and has to spare. And afterwards, she can grant absolution to you all."
Again the robbers laughed, as the clerk began explaining very volubly to them that they were welcome to all that Mother Church could on this occasion offer.
"We know better than to stay a monk for toll," said the robber. "Beside, would your excellence have us commit sacrilege?"
"I would have you leave hold of my bridle," answered Robin, very wrathfully.
"Pay the toll cheerfully, youngling," cried one of the others, "and be not so wordy in the business. We have other folk to visit; the day is already half gone from Sherwood."
"I will shoot with you for the freedom of the forest," said Robin, desperately. "An I lose, then shall you take all but my mother's jennet. She shall be allowed to carry my mother into Gamewell, whilst I remain here, as hostage, for her return."
"Let the dame bring back a hundred crowns in each of her hands, then," replied the chief of the robbers.
"It is agreed," answered Robin, after one appealing glance towards the dame. "Now help me down from my horse, and let the clerk see fair play. Set us a mark, good father, and pray Heaven to speed my arrows cunningly."
The clerk, who had kept himself much in the background, now spoke. "This wager seems to savor of unholiness, friends," said he, solemnly. "Yet, in that it also smacks of manliness, I will even consent to be judge. You, sir, since you are doubtless well acquainted with the part, can speak for distance. Now, I do appoint the trunk of yon birch-tree as first mark in this business."
"Speed your arrow, then, lording," laughed the robber, gaily. "'Tis but forty ells away! I will follow you respectfully, never doubt it."
Robin bent his bow and trained his eyes upon the birch.
Then suddenly came back upon him his father's words: "Remember that I am a proud man, Robin."
"I will," muttered Robin, betwixt set teeth, and he aimed with all his heart and soul in it. There came the twang of the bowstring, and the next moment the gooseshaft was flying towards its mark.
"A pretty shot, master," said the robber, glancing carelessly towards the arrow, quivering still in the trunk of the birch-tree. "But you have scarce taken the centre of our mark. Let me see if I may not mend your aim."
His arrow sang through the summer air, and took root fairly in the middle of the trunk, side by side with Robin's.
"You win first round, friend," said the clerk, with seeming reluctance. "Now, listen, both, whilst I make you a better test." He was about to continue, when an interruption occurred one that saved him necessity of further speech.
Suddenly through the greenwood came full four score of the King's Foresters, running towards the robbers, ready to seize them.
These were the foresters of Nottingham, roving far afield. The Sheriff of Nottingham had become angered at the impudent robberies of late, and now all of his foresters had spread themselves about Sherwood in the hope of making such a capture of the outlaws as would please their master and bring substantial reward to themselves. On the head of Will o' th' Green, the chief of the band, was set the price of ten golden crowns.
But alas! these crowns were still to seek; for Will o' th' Green, at first hint of the danger, had put his horn to his lips and given a long, low call upon it, and next instant not a robber was to be seen.
Each man had dropped to his hands and knees as soon as he had reached the bushes; and the foresters might beat and belabor Mother Sherwood in vain, for she would never betray her children.
Fitzooth's men-at-arms were glad to be released, and were eager now to give all information against their assailants. One of the fellows swore roundly that the learned clerk had given Will o' th' Green a very plain hint; but this assertion was most properly put aside by all who heard it.
Robin gave his story of the business, and then, having thanked the captain of the foresters, would have continued the journey. The clerk was no longer to be denied, however, from his food: and so it came about that presently the four of them were at a meal together under the trees—the captain of the foresters having agreed to join with Robin, the hermit, and Mistress Fitzooth in an attack upon the good wine and pasty which the latter had provided.
The foresters returned in twos and threes from their fruitless search, and stood about in little knots discussing the chase. All agreed that the outlaws had some stronghold underground, with many entrances and ways into it; easily to be found by those in the secret, but impossible of passage to persons in pursuit.
"Do you go to Gamewell, friends?" asked the captain, after the meal had been finished. When he had been answered yes, he told Mistress Fitzooth that she might have an escort for the rest of the way; since he and his men must travel to Gamewell themselves, to report the encounter to Squire George of Gamewell.
Gladly Mistress Fitzooth heard this, and very cheerfully they all started afresh upon the journey.
Robin alone was sad; the fact that the robber chief's arrow had flown more near a woodman's mark than his own rankled within his breast.
Ah, but a time would come when Master Will o' th' Green should see better archery than he now dreamed of. And Robin should be the master who would teach the lesson.
Building such day-dreams, he cantered quietly enough beside his mother's jennet; whilst the clerk and the captain of the foresters chattered amiably together. The dame listened to their gossip, and put in her own word and question; she had an easy mind now and could give herself to talk of Prince John and his impudent rebellion.
"So the barons would really make him King?" asked she, round-eyed: "King of all these lands and forests?"
"Some of our barons have sworn so much," answered the forester, lightly; "but men speak best with their swords, dame. Have you not heard of young Montfichet's doings? He has undone himself indeed——"
"Waldemar Fitzurse is behind it all, and young De Brocy," the clerk interrupted, loudly, giving him a warning glance.
The friar pointed to Robin. "'Tis the lad's cousin, and he does not know of Geoffrey Montfichet's outlawry," he whispered.
"Some say that the King will establish an assize of arms on his return from France, whereby every knight, freeholder, and burgess must arm himself for England's defense," continued the clerk, easily. "'Tis a pretty notion, and like our King."
"There are tales about our Henry, and ballads more than enough," replied the forester, shrugging his shoulders. "Will o' th' Green knows a good one, I am told."
At the mention of the outlaw's name Robin pricked up his ears. He asked many questions concerning Master Will; and learned that he had been outlawed by Henry himself for the accidental slaying of a younger brother in a quarrel years since. Before that he had been a dutiful and loyal subject, and there were some who vowed that Master Will was as loyal now as many of Henry's barons. Will shot the King's deer, truly, but only that he might live: the others conspired against their monarch's honor, in order that their own might be increased.
The cavalcade came into sight of Gamewell Hall while still at this gossip. The night was falling and lights burned behind the embrasured windows of the castle, for such it was in truth, being embattled and surrounded properly by a moat and heavy walls.
The captain wound his horn to such purpose that the bridge was soon lowered, and the whole party began to trot over it into the wide courtyard before the hall. That it was a very magnificent place was apparent, despite the shadows.
Before the door of the hall Robin sprang lightly from his horse and ran to help his mother from her saddle with tender care: then moved to give assistance to the clerk. The latter had bundled himself to firm ground, however, and now stood stolidly expectant.
Master Montfichet—George of Gamewell, as the country folk called him mostly—had come down to greet his guests, and was waiting upon them ere Robin could turn about. The Squire was an old man, with white hair curling from under a little round cap. He wore long black robes, loose and rather monkish in their fashion. He seemed as unlike his sister as Robin could well imagine, besides being so much more advanced in years. His face was hairless and rather pale; but his eyes shone brightly. There was a very pleasant expression in the lines about his mouth, and his manner was perfect. He embraced Robin with kindliness; and real affection for his sister seemed to underlie his few words of welcome. To the Friar of Copmanhurst he was so courteous and respectful that Robin began to wonder whether he himself had ever properly regarded the clerk in the past. If so great a man should bow to him, what ought Robin to do? Robin remembered that he had often ventured to rally and tease this good-natured master who had taught him his letters.
The Squire bade them follow him, so soon as their horses and baggage had been duly given over to the servants and he had heard the forester's complaint against the outlaws. The Squire made little comment, but frowned.
At the conclusion of the captain's report, they came into the hall, lighted by a thousand fat tapers.
"Sister Nell—do you please dismiss us," said the Squire, in his courtly way, after he had signed to some waiting-maids to take charge of Mistress Fitzooth. "I will lead Robin to his chamber myself, and show him the arrangement we have made for his stay at Gamewell. Supper will be served us here in less than an hour. Father, your apartments shall be near my own. Come with me, also."
In the room allotted to him Robin found new and gay clothes laid out upon a fair, white bed, with a little rush mat beside it. A high latticed window looked out upon the court, and there was a bench in the nook, curiously carven and filled with stuffs and naperies the like of which Robin had never seen before.
The walls were hung with tapestries, and very fierce and amazing were the pictures embroidered upon them. The ceiling was low and raftered with polished beams. Behind the door was a sword suspended by a leathern belt.
"For you, kinsman," the Squire had said, smilingly.
Robin lost no time in doffing his green jerkin and hose, and then he washed himself and eagerly essayed his new habiliments. When the sword had been buckled on, our young hero of Locksley felt himself equal to Will o' th' Green or any other gallant in Christendom.
He strode along the corridors and found his way back to the great hall. There the Master of Gamewell and his mother awaited him. Mistress Fitzooth's eyes shone approvingly, and Robin slipped his fingers into hers.
"I'll build a castle as fine as this, mother mine, one of these days," Robin told her: and he began to ask Master Montfichet questions as to the number of claims-at-law that he must have won in order to hold so splendid a domain. The Squire smilingly told him that the King had given Gamewell to him as a reward for valor in battle many years agone.
"Then will I fight for the King," cried Robin, with flashing eyes, "so that I may win my father Broadweald and all the lands of it."
"And I will teach you, Robin: be sure of that," said old George Montfichet. "But your sword must be swung for the right King, harkee. Not for rebellious princes will we cry to arms; but for him whom God hath placed over us—Henry the Angevin."
"Amen," murmured the clerk, fervently. "Let law and order be respected always."
"It may mean much to you, friar," said Montfichet. "Young John has the Priory of York under his hands."
"He has not fingers upon Sherwood, and we are free of it!" cried the clerk. Then he hastily corrected himself. "We hermits can have no fear, since we have no wealth. Happy then the man with naught to lose, and who has a contented mind."
"I will be free of Sherwood Forest, father, if that boon shall wait upon my archery. Master Will, the robber, swore that if I beat him, sir"—he had turned his bright face to old Gamewell's—"I should go free of the greenwood. And I will win the right."
"'Tis scarcely Will's to grant," frowned the Squire; "yet, in a way, he has control of the forest. It is a matter which I will look to, since the Sheriff seems so fearful of him," he added, significantly.
The next day they journeyed quietly into Nottingham, taking only a few retainers with them. The clerk chose to stay at the hall, fearing, as he said, that his eyes would be offended with the vanity of the town.
When they had come to the meadows wherein the Fair was held, Robin was overcome with joy at the sight of the wonderments before him.
That which most pleased him was the tumbling and wrestling of a company of itinerant players, merry fellows, all in a great flutter of tinsel and noise. They were father and three sons, and while the old man blew vigorously upon some instrument, the three sons amused themselves and the crowd by cutting capers.
Again and again did Robin entice Master Montfichet to return to these strollers. It was the wrestling that most moved him, for they put such heart into it as to make the thing seem real. "Give them another penny, sir," requested Robin, with heightened color. "Nay, give them a silver one. Did you ever see the like? The little one has the trick of it, for sure ... I do believe that he will throw the elder in the next bout."
"Will you try a turn with me, young master?" asked the little stroller, overhearing these words, "If you can stand twice to me, I'll teach you the trick and more besides."
"Nay, nay," said the Squire, hastily. "We have no leisure for such play, Robin. Your mother is waiting for us at yonder booth. Let us go to her."
Robin turned away reluctantly. "I do think I could stand twice to him. The grass is dry within the ring, sir—do you think I should hurt my clothes?"
Such pleading as this moved the capricious old Master of Gamewell. Although it was scarce a proper thing for one of gentle blood to mix with these commoners, yet the Squire could not forego his own appetite for sport. He turned about to the strollers: "I will give a purse of silver pennies to the one who wins the next bout," said he. "Let any and all be welcome to the ring, and the bout shall be one of three falls. Challenge anyone in Nottingham; I dare swear some lad will be found who shall show you how to grip and throw."
The father of the players struck a most pompous attitude and blew three piercing blasts. "Come one, come all!" cried he. "Here be the three great wrestlers from Cumberland, where wrestling is practised by every lad and man! Here are the wrestlers who have beaten all in their own county, and who now seek to overcome other champions! Oyez, oyez! There is a prize of twenty silver pennies to be handed to the winner of the next bout (did you say twenty or thirty pennies, lording?). Come one, come all—the lads from Cumberland challenge you!"
"Now let me wrestle for the pence, sir," pleaded Robin, catching hold of the Squire's sleeve. "Why should not I try to win them? They might become the foundation of that fortune which I would have for my father's sake."
"Twenty pennies would buy him little of Broadweald, boy," laughed the Squire. "Nor should a Montfichet struggle in the mob for vulgar gain. You are a Montfichet—remember it—on your mother's side. We will see how they fare, these men of Cumberland, against the lads of Nottingham and Sherwood. Here comes one in answer to the challenge."
A thin, pale-faced fellow had claimed the purse whilst the Squire had been speaking. "'Tis yours if you can take it," answered the old stroller, as he and his lads cleared the ring. A great crowd of folk gathered about, and Montfichet and Robin were in danger of being jostled into the background.
"Stand here beside me, lording," commanded the stroller. "Do you keep back there, impudent dogs! This is the noble who gives the purse. There shall be no purse at all, an you harry us so sorely. Stand back, you and you!" He pushed back the mob with vigorous thrusts. "Now let the best man win."
The two lads had stripped to their waists, and were eyeing each other warily. The Nottingham youth, despite his slimness, showed clean and muscular against the swarthy thick-set boy from Cumberland. They suddenly closed in and clutched each other, then swayed uncertainly from side to side. The crowd cheered madly.
The competitors for Montfichet's purse were evenly matched in strength: it remained for one of them to throw the other by means of some trick or feint. The stroller tried a simple ruse, and nigh lost his feet in doing it.
"You must show us a better attempt than that, Cumberland!" called out someone. Robin, quick-eared to recognize a voice, turned his head instantly, and in time to catch a glimpse of Will o' th' Green, the robber of Sherwood!
Seeing Robin's gaze fixed upon him, Master Will deemed it prudent to discreetly withdraw. He nodded boldly to the lad first, however; then moved slowly away. "Hold fast to him, Nottingham, for your credit's sake," he cried, ere disappearing.
Meanwhile the wrestlers tugged and strained every nerve. Great beads of perspiration stood out upon their brows. Neither made any use of the many common tricks of wrestling: each perceived in the other no usual foe.
Suddenly the Nottingham lad slipped, or seemed to slip, and instantly the other gripped him for a throw. Fatal mistake—'twas but a ruse—and so clear a one as to end the first round. The Nottingham lad recovered adroitly, and now that the other had his arm low about the enemy's body, his equipoise was readily disturbed. The stroller felt himself swiftly thrust downward, and as they both fell together it was he who went undermost.
"A Nottingham! A Nottingham!" clamored the crowd, approvingly. Then all prepared themselves for the second round.
This, to Robin's surprise, was ended as soon as begun. The Cumberland lad knew of a clever grip, and practised it upon the other immediately, and the Nottingham hero went down heavily.
The third bout was a stubborn match, but fortune decided it at length in favor of the stroller. Montfichet handed the purse to the winner without regret. "Spend the money worthily as you have won it, Cumberland," spoke the Squire. "Now, Robin, let us join your mother. She will be weary waiting for us."
"And if your stomach sickens for a fight with me, master, here may I be found until Saturday at noon." So said the little tumbler, roguishly. "'Tis a pity that we could not tussle for the purse, eh? but I would have given your ribs a basting."
"Now shall I twist his ears for him, Squire?" said Robin.
"Nay, boy, let his ears grow longer, as befitteth; then you will have freer play with them. Come with me to see the miracle-play, and be not so ready to answer these rascallions. I begin to think that we should not have gone the round of the shows by ourselves, Master Spitfire. Travelling unattended with you is too dangerous a business."
Montfichet smiled despite his chidings. He had already taken a fancy to this high-spirited youth. He walked affectionately, with his hand upon Robin's shoulder, towards the booth where, with her maids, Mistress Fitzooth was waiting for them. "Are you sorry for Nottingham, Robin?" he asked, as they passed by the pale-faced, rueful wrestler. "Then take him this little purse quietly. Tell him it is for consolation, from a friend."
Robin gladly performed the task; then, as he returned to the Squire's side, thought to ask instruction on a point which had perplexed him not a little. "Yesterday, sir," he began, "when we were in the greenwood, all men seemed eager to catch the robber chief."
"To-day he walks about Nottingham Fair, and no one attempts to tarry him. Why is this, sir? Is the ground sanctuary?"
"Have you spied out Will o' th 'Green indeed?" began Montfichet, eagerly. "That were hard to believe, for all he is so audacious."
"Truly, sir, I saw him when we were at the wrestling. He peered at me above the caps of the people."
"Point him out now to me, Robin, if you can." The Squire became humorously doubtful, and his amusement grew upon him as Robin vainly searched with his bright eyes about the throng. "No Will o' th' Green is here, child; he would be a fish out of water, indeed, in Nottingham town. Dearly would I love to catch him, though."
"Yet I did see him, sir, and he knew me. Now here is my mother, who shall tell you how long we talked together yesterday. It is not likely that I would forget his voice."
"Well, well, perhaps you are right," said the Squire. "At any rate, we'll keep sharp eyes for the rogue. Have you seen the miracle-play, Sister Nell?" he added now to Mistress Fitzooth.
"I have been waiting here for you," answered she, briefly, "Robin, what do you think of it all?"
Robin's reply was drowned in the noise of the music made within the tents. It was so dreadful a din that all were fain to move away.
"See, mother, here is a wizard; let us go in here!" Robin had spied a dim, mysterious booth, outside of which were triangles and cones and fiery serpents coming forth from a golden pot, with cabalistic signs and figures about the sides of it. Standing there was a tall, aged man, clad in a long red robe and leaning upon a star-capped wand.
"Will you have the stars read to you, lording?" he asked, gravely.
"Ay, surely!" clamored Robin. "Come, mother mine; come, sir, let us ask him questions of Locksley, and hear what my father may be doing."
"Do you think that you will hear truth, child? Well, have your way. Will you join us, Nell—the business is a pleasing one, for these knaves have the tricks of their trade. But harkee, friends, give no real heed to the mummery."
The wizard ushered them into his tent. Then he dropped the edge of the canvas over the opening, shrouding them in complete darkness.
The Squire began an angry protest, thinking that now was a good chance for any confederate to rob them or cut their pockets: but the wizard, unheeding, struck suddenly upon a small gong. A little blue flame sprang up from a brazier at the far end of the tent.
In the strange light one could now see the furniture and appurtenances of this quaint place. They were curious enough, although few in number. A globe, and a small table covered with a black cloth; a bench strewn with papers and parchments; and a skeleton of an ape, terribly deformed, were the chief items of the collection.
A curtain concealed part of the tent. Behind the brazier were hanging shelves covered with little bottles and phials. The wizard stretched his wand out towards the dancing blue flame, and it forthwith leaped up into a golden glory.
"Approach, Robin, son of Fitzooth the Ranger," commanded the wizard. "Place your hand upon the globe and look down upon this table." He pushed away the black cloth, showing that the center of the table was made of flat green glass. "Look steadily, and tell me what you see."
"I see through it the grass of the ground on which we stand," said Robin. "There is naught else."
"Look again, Robin of Locksley."
Robin strained his eyes in the hope of discovering something of mystery. But the flat glass was clear and disappointing.
"Let me take your place, Robin," said Mistress Fitzooth, impatiently.
But now the green of the glass began to fade; and it seemed to become opaque and misty. Robin dimly saw in it a sudden miniature picture of a glade in the forest of Sherwood, the trees moving under a south-west wind, and the grasses and flowers bowing together and trembling.
It seemed to be summer; the bracken was high and green. A man, clad in doublet and hose of Lincoln green, strode forward into the center of the picture. He was a slim fellow, not over tall, with a likeable face, bearded and bronzed; and a forester, too, if one might judge by the longbow which he carried. He wore no badge nor mark of servitude, however, and walked as a free man. His face, vaguely familiar, wore an expectant look. He turned his glances right and left. A low call sounded from the bushes on his left. Robin could hear it as a sound afar off.
The man cautiously moved towards the verge of the glade, and as he did so there came a shower of light laughter from the undergrowth. Pushing aside the bracken came forth two arms; a merry face appeared; then, quick as a flash, upstood a page, gaily clad, with black curly hair and strange eyes.
The man opened his arms to the lad, and then Robin saw that 'twas no boy at all. It was a maid, joyous with life, playing such a prank as this that she might bring herself to her true love's side.
Robin watched them delightedly. In some way he knew that in this mirrored picture he was concerned to a curious degree; and when a cold cloud passing above the glade took the sun and the light from it Robin felt an intense anxiety.
"Can you see aught now, Robin of the Woods?" murmured the soft voice of the wizard, and Robin would have asked him who was the man, if his tongue had been at command.
His eyes took all the strength of his brain. They waited furiously for the cloud to pass.
When all had become clear again the man was alone. His face was sorrowful, ill, and old. He was fitting an arrow to his bow, and his hand trembled as his fingers drew the string. He drew it slowly, almost wearily, yet with a practised gesture. Robin, watching him, saw the arrow leap forth from the picture.
"He is dying and shoots his last arrow—is it not so?" he uttered thickly, striving to understand.
While he spoke the vision faded and was gone.
Robin started back angrily and faced the Squire. He began a confused complaint against the wizard, who had vanished behind the curtain on the left. Master Montfichet shrugged his shoulders indulgently.
"Give not so earnest a mind to these mummeries, child. 'Twas all a trick! What did you see? A golden fortune and a happy life?"
"I did see a man, sir, dressed all in Lincoln green. He was like unto my father, in a way, and yet was not my father. Also there was a stripling page, who turned into a maid. Very beautiful she was, and I would know her again in any guise."
"Ah, Master Robin, have you eyes for the maids already?"
"This was so sweet a lady, sir, and in some manner I do think she died. And the man shot an arrow, meaning me to see where it fell, since there would be her grave. That is what I think he meant. But then the picture was gone as quickly as it came."
"Sister Nell, do you hear these marvels? Take your place and let us see what the crystal can show to you. Most worthy conjurer of dreams, take up your wand again: we all are waiting impatiently to know what is in store for us!"
"These things are true that the glass mirror shows, lording," answered the wizard, reappearing. "The crystal cannot lie."
He spoke unwittingly in a natural key. Robin turned round upon him very shrewdly.
"Friend wizard," said the youth, half at random, "have you ever played at archery in that greenwood which your glass showed us so prettily?"
"Like as not, young master, though I am an old man."
"Fie on you, friend!" cried Robin, exulting in a sudden discovery. "Remember that the crystal cannot lie. It tells me now that you and I will meet in rivalry, to shoot together for a strange prize—the freedom of Sherwood!"
The wizard hastily drew near and pretended to peer into the glass. "What would you do?" he whispered, fiercely.
"I can be generous, Will o' th' Green," spoke back Robin, quite sure now. "Keep your secret, for I will not betray you."
At this moment there uprose without the booth a most deafening tumult. Forthwith all ran to the opening of the tent to see what might be amiss; but Master Will, who peeped out first, needed no more than one glance. He gave way to the others very readily and retreated unperceived by the Squire and Mistress Fitzooth to the rear of the tent.
Cries of: "A Nottingham! A Nottingham!" rent the air, and added to the clangor of bells and trumpetings. As the Squire and Robin looked forth they beheld a flying crowd of men and women, all running and shouting.
Before them fled the stroller and his three sons, capless and terrified. The old man's triangle had been torn from him and was being jangled now by Nottingham fingers.
"There is trouble before us. Come, Robin," said Montfichet, as he stepped out, with the lad close at his heels.
"What is the tumult and rioting?" cried out the Squire, authoritatively, and he blew twice on a silver whistle which hung at his belt.
The strollers rushed at once toward the old man, and faced their enemies resolutely when they had gained his side. They were out of breath, and their story was a confused one.
The little tumbler recovered first. After the Squire had left them, he said, the Nottingham lad had returned with full a score of riotous apprentices, all armed with cudgels. They had demanded a fresh trial of skill for the Squire's purse of pennies.
"Which was denied us in most vile words, lording," cried out one from the crowd, which had come to a halt and was now formed in an angry sheepish ring about the front of the wizard's tent.
"Nay, we refused their request most politely, most noble," said the little stroller. "And then they became vexed, and would have snatched your purse from us. So my brother did stow the pennies quickly into his wallet, and, giving me the purse——"
"You flung it full in my face!" roared the Nottingham wrestler, pushing his way to the front, "you little viper, so I snatched at him to give him the whipping he deserved, when——"
"I could not see my boy injured, excellence, for but doing his duty as one of Cumberland's sons. So I did push this fellow."
"It is enough," said George Gamewell, sharply, and he turned upon the crowd. "Shame on you, citizens," cried he; "I blush for my fellows of Nottingham. Is this how you play an English game: to force your rivals to lose to you any way? Cumberland has won my purse: the test was fairly set, and fairly were we conquered. Surely we can submit with good grace."
"'Tis fine for you to talk, old man," answered the lean, sullen apprentice. "But I wrestled with this fellow and do know that he played unfairly in the second bout. Else had I not gone down at the clutch, as all did see."
"Insolent!" spoke the Squire, losing all patience; "and it was to you that I gave another purse in consolation! Go your ways ere I cause you to be more soundly whipped than your deserts, which should bring heavy enough punishment, for sure. Come to me, men, here, here!" He raised his voice still louder. "A Montfichet! A Montfichet!" he called; and the Gamewell men who had answered to his first whistling, now lustily threw themselves upon the back of the mob.
Instantly all was uproar and confusion, worse than when they first had been startled from the wizard's tent. The Nottingham apprentices struck out savagely with their sticks, hitting friend and foe alike. The burgesses and citizens were not slow to return these blows, and a fierce battle was commenced.
The strollers took their part in it with hearty zest now that they had some chance of beating off their foes. Robin and the little tumbler between them tried to force the Squire to stand back, and very valiantly did these two comport themselves.
The head and chief of the riot, the Nottingham apprentice, with clenched fists, threatened Montfichet. Robin and the little stroller sprang upon the wretch and bore him to the ground. The three rolled over and over each other, punching and pummelling when and where they might. Robin at last got fairly upon the back of their enemy and clung desperately to him; whilst the stroller essayed to tie the man's hands with his own garters.
The riot increased, for all were fighting now in two great parties; townsfolk against apprentices. The din and shouting were appalling. Robin and the little tumbler between them rolled their captive into the wizard's tent.
The Squire helped to thrust them all in and entered swiftly himself. Then he pulled down the flap of canvas, hoping that thus they might not be espied. "Now, be silent, on your lives," he began; but the captured apprentice set up an instant shout.
"Silence, you knave!" cried Montfichet. "Stifle him, Robin, if need be; take his cloth." He felt for and found the wizard's black cloth.
The Squire was quite out of breath. "Where is our wizard friend?" he went on, peering about in the semi-darkness. "Most gentle conjurer, we wish your aid."
But Master Will had beaten a prudent retreat through the back of the tent. The canvas was ripped open, letting in a streak of light. They left their prisoner upon the ground, and cautiously drew near the rift.
The noise without showed no abatement. The fighting was nearer to the tent, and the bodies of the combatants bumped ever and anon heavily against the yielding canvas.
"They will pull down the place about our heads," muttered the Squire. "Hurry, friends."
Just then Robin stumbled over the skeleton of the ape, and an idea seized suddenly on his brain, and, picking himself up, he clutched the horrid thing tightly, and turned back with it. Thrusting open the proper entrance of the tent, Robin suddenly rushed forth with his burden, with a great shout.
"A Montfichet! A Montfichet! Gamewell to the rescue!"
He held the ape aloft and thrust with it at the press. The battle melted away like wax under a hot sun at the touch of those musty bones. Terror and affright seized upon the mob, and everywhere they fell back.
Taking advantage of this, the Squire's few men redoubled their efforts, and, encouraged by Robin's and the little stroller's cries, fought their way to him. The tumbler had come bounding to Robin's side and made up in defiant noise that which he lacked in strength of arm. The tide was turned, the other strollers and the Gamewell men came victoriously through the press and formed a ring about the entrance to the wizard's tent.
Robin, still brandishing his hideous skeleton, wished to pursue the beaten and flying rabble; but the Squire counselled prudence.
"You have done right well, Robin of Locksley, and dearly do I love you for your courage and resource. George Montfichet will never forget this day. Here let us wait until the Sheriff's men come to us. I hear them now, come at last, when all the fighting's done."
"What is your name, lording?" asked the little stroller, presently.
"And mine is Will Stuteley. Shall we be comrades?"
"Right willingly, for between us we have won the battle," answered Robin. He had taken a liking to this merry rogue; and gave him his name without fear or doubt. "I like you, Will; you are the second Will that I have met and liked within two days; is there a sign in that?"
"A sign that we will be proper friends," replied the stroller.
Montfichet called out for Robin to give him an arm. The Squire, now that the danger was over, felt the reaction; and he had strange pains about his breast.
"Friends," said Montfichet, faintly, to the wrestlers, "bear us escort so far as the Sheriff's house. It will not be safe for you to stay here now. I would speak with you later, since notice must be taken of this affair. Pray follow us, with mine and my lord Sheriff's men."
He spoke with difficulty, and both Robin and Mistress Fitzooth were much perplexed over him. The party moved slowly across the scattered Fair; nor heeded the mutterings and sour looks of the few who, from a distance, eyed them.
Nottingham Castle was reached, and admittance was demanded. When the Sheriff heard who was without his gates he came down himself to greet them. He was a small, pompous man, very magnificent in his robes of office, which he was wearing this day in honor of the Fair. In the early morning he had declared it open; and on the last day would bring his daughter to deliver the prizes which would be won at the tourney.
Master Monceux, the Sheriff of Nottingham, was mightily put about when told of the rioting. He protested that the rogues who had conspired to bring about this scandal should all be thrust into the stocks for two whole days, and should afterwards be scourged out of the city. He was profuse in his offers of hospitality to his guests; knowing Montfichet to have a powerful influence with the King. And Henry might return to England at any moment.
The strollers and the Squire's retainers had been told to find refreshment with the Sheriff's men-at-arms in the buttery. Robin pleaded, however, with the Squire for little Will to be left with them.
"I like this impudent fellow," he said, "and he was very willing to help us but a little while since. Let him stay with me and be my squire in the coming tourney."
"Have your will, child, if the boy also wills it," Montfichet answered, feeling too ill to oppose anything very strongly just then. He made an effort to hide his condition from them all, and Robin felt his fingers tighten upon his arm.
"What is it, dear patron?" Robin asked, anxiously.
"Beg me a room of the Sheriff, child, quickly. I do think that my heart is touched with some distemper."
Robin ran to the Sheriff.
"Sir," said he, "my patron is overcome of the heat and commotion. He prays that you will quietly grant him some private chamber wherein he may rest."
"Surely, surely!" said the Sheriff. "Ay, and I will send him a leech—my own man, and a right skilful fellow. Bid your master use this poor house as he would his own." The Sheriff spoke with great affectation. "In the meantime I will see that a proper banquet is served to us within an hour. But who is this fellow plucking at your sleeve? He should be in the kitchen with the rest."
"He is my esquire, excellency," returned Robin, with dignity.
Mistress Fitzooth had been carried off by the Sheriff's daughter and her maids as soon as they had entered the house, so that Robin alone had the care of Montfichet. With Will Stuteley's assistance they brought the old man safely to the chamber allotted them by the fussy Sheriff. Robin was glad when, at length, they were left to their own devices.
"'Tis a goblet of good wine that the lording requires to mend him," said the little stroller. "I'll go and get it, Robin Fitzooth."
The wine did certainly bring back the color to the Squire's cheeks. Robin chafed his cold hands and warmed them betwixt his own. Slowly the fit passed away, and George Montfichet felt the life returning to him.
"'Twas an ugly touch, young Robin. These escapades are not for old Gamewell, lad; his day has come to twilight. Soon 'twill be night for him and time for sleep."
The Squire's voice was sad. He held Robin's hand affectionately, as the latter continued his efforts to bring back warmth to him.
"But I will do some proper service for you, child. You shall not find me one to lightly forget. Will you forgive me now? I will return to Gamewell soon as I may and there rest for a few days."
"I'll take you, sir. It will be no disappointment to me. I have seen all that I wish of Nottingham Fair."
"You shall return for the tourney; and if your father will give you leave, young Cumberland, you shall become my Robin's esquire. No thanks; I am glad to give you such easy happiness. Arm me to the hall, Robin; I am myself again, and surely there is a smell of roasted meats!"
"You are a worthy leech, Will," presently whispered Robin. "The wine has worked a marvel. Come, follow us, and forget not that I still will wrestle with you! Ay, and show you some pretty tricks."
"Unless I have already learned them!" retorted young Stuteley, laughing. Then, becoming serious, the little stroller suddenly bent his knee. "I'll follow you across the earth and sea, master," he murmured, touching Robin's hand with his lips.
He lightly sprang to his feet again, seeing that Montfichet now impatiently awaited them. Together they made their way to the banquet spread in the Sheriff of Nottingham's wide hall.
Squire George of Gamewell rested at his ease in the comfort of his own domain during the next day; and, though he would have Robin go into Nottingham, with his new esquire and Warrenton—Montfichet's own man—young Fitzooth was more than content to stay near to his patron's side.
There had been no difficulty in the matter of Master Stuteley's detachment from the other strollers. The old tumbler was shrewd enough to see that his son would considerably better his fortunes by joining them with those of Robin of Locksley. Will was delighted, and wished to commence his duty in Robin's service by instructing his young master at once in the arts of wrestling, single-stick, and quarter-staff.
The Squire laughed at their enthusiasm.
"Do you leave me, Robin, to the care of your mother: I warrant me I'll come to no harm!" he said. "There are matters on which I would talk with her, and we must be at peace."
Montfichet dismissed them. He was quite restored by this time, and settled himself to a serious conversation with his sister.
There were subjects which he touched upon only to her—being a secret man in some things, and very cautious.
"Having now no son, and being a lonely man," he had written in his letter, and Dame Fitzooth had known from this that unhappy relations still existed between George of Gamewell and Geoffrey Montfichet, his only son.
The two men had been for a long time on unfriendly terms, though the Squire latterly had sought honestly to undo that which had been years a-doing. He could not own to himself that the fault was his altogether: but Geoffrey, exiled to London, had been brought back to Gamewell at his father's entreaty. For a time things had gone on in a better direction—then had come Prince John's rebellion.
Geoffrey Montfichet was found to have been implicated in it, and had been condemned to death. Only by the Squire's most strenuous endeavors had this sentence been commuted by the King to life punishment. Geoffrey fled to Scotland, whilst the Squire had been exercising himself on his erring son's behalf. It was the last straw, and George Montfichet disinherited his son. The hard-won Manor of Gamewell must pass from the line.
Squire George had suddenly perceived a chance to prevent that catastrophe. He had taken greatly to the lad Robin Fitzooth: and this boy was of the true Montfichet blood—why should he not adopt the Montfichet name and become the Montfichet heir?
This notion had been simmering in the Squire's mind. It had been born at that moment when Robin had so cared for him and fought for him in Nottingham Fair. "Here, at last," said the Squire, "have I found a son, indeed."
Mistress Fitzooth had to listen to her brother's arguments submissively. The dame saw stormy days for her ahead, for well she guessed that Hugh Fitzooth would never agree to what the other in his impetuous way was proposing. She listened and said "yea" and "nay" as the occasion offered: once she mentioned Geoffrey's name, and saw Gamewell's face cloud instantly with anger.
"He is no son of mine," said Montfichet, in a hard voice. "Do not speak of him here, sister Nell—nor think me an unforgiving man," he hastened to add, "for God knows that I did humble myself to the ground that I might save his head from the axe of the King's executioner! And he disgraced me by running away to Scotland on the very night that I had gained Henry's pardon for him. Nay; I have no kin with cowards!"
"Geoffrey may have some reasonable excuse, brother mine," began the dame, anxious to make peace.
Gamewell cut her short. "There can be no excuse for him," he said, harshly.
His voice softened when he talked of Robin, for he was concerned to gain his point.
"Fitzooth will be difficult in the matter, I do fear me," murmured the dame, perplexed and ill at ease. "He is a Saxon, George, and thinks much of his descent and name. He looks to Robin winning fame for it, as in olden days. I do misdoubt me sorely."
"Well, let the lad be known as Robin Fitzooth Montfichet—'tis but tacking on another name to him," said the Squire. "If he lives here, as I shall devise in my will, right soon will he be known as Gamewell, and that only! That fate has befallen me, and one might believe me now as Saxon as your Hugh, Nell."
"You are none the worse for't, George," answered the dame, proudly. "Either race is a kingly one."
"Saxon or Norman—shall Robin become Montfichet?" asked the Squire, commencing his arguments again.
Fate had in store for young Robin, however, very different plans from those tormenting Fitzooth the Ranger and old Squire George of Gamewell Hall.
* * * * *
The two lads strolled arm-in-arm about the wide court of Gamewell, following Warrenton, in dutiful mood. The old henchman was very proud of the place, and had all the legends of it at his fingers' ends. He told young Robin of hidden treasure and secret passage-ways, and waxed eloquent concerning the tapestries and carvings.
The hours went pleasantly enough, for, after the building had been duly shown them, Warrenton took Robin about the gardens and orchards. There was a pleasance, and a "Lady's Bower," wherein, Warrenton affirmed, walked a beautiful lady once in every twelve months, at Hallow-e'en, on the stroke of midnight. The old man then left them.
Very shocked was the old retainer to find these merry lads engaged together, later, at wrestling and the quarter-staff, as if they had been equals in birth. When Stuteley had thrown Robin thrice at "touch and hold," within sight of the hall—it was indeed upon the soft grass of the pleasance—Warrenton looked to see old Gamewell thundering forth.
When the Squire came not, and Robin nerved himself for yet another tussle, the retainer shrugged his shoulders and even took an interest in the matter.
"Catch him by the middle," he shouted. "Now you have him, lording, fairly. Throw him prettily!" And sure enough Stuteley came down.
"Does Master Gamewell play at archery here, Warrenton?" Robin asked, presently, when he and Will were tired of wrestling. "Are they not targets that I see yonder?"
The old man's eye lit up with pride. "Squire's as pretty a marksman as any in Nottingham, lording, for all his years!" cried he. "And old Warrenton it was who taught him. Yon target is a fair mark for any shaft from where we stand. Yet I dare swear that Gamewell's lord would never miss the bull in fifty shots at it!"
"Have you bow and quiver here?" inquired Robin, eagerly. "Mine I have left in my room."
"Cross bow, longbow, or what you will, most noble. All that Gamewell has I am to give you. Such were my master's commands. An your esquire will run to the little hut near by, within the trees, he will find all that we need."
"Go, Will. Haste you, and bring me a proper bow," cried Robin, with sparkling eyes. "Now I'll bend the yew and see if I cannot do better than in Sherwood."
Master Stuteley, having journeyed to the hut, peeped in and started back with a cry of affright.
"The Yellow Woman, Robin!" called he, scampering back to them. "She is in there, and did snatch at me! Let us run, quickly!"
"Beshrew me, master, but this is an adventure, for sure! The Yellow One, was it? Then your days are numbered, and we had better be seeking a new esquire," said Warrenton.
"Are you afraid, Warrenton?" said Robin, moving involuntarily nearer to him. He glanced from one to the other, undecided whether to believe Will or stand and laugh at his fears.
"I have had the distemper, master, and cannot again be hurt. But here she comes, by the Lord! Keep near to me, lording, and shut your eyes tight."
Robin was too dazed to heed the old man's advice. He glared in a fascinated way at the figure emerging from the hut.
"It is a man," cried Robin, at last, "and listen—he is calling you, Warrenton."
The retainer uttered a little sound of astonishment and ran forward. "Sir—sir," he cried, as if in entreaty, to the man approaching: and he made a gesture as though to warn him.
The "Yellow Lady" appeared to be in doubt both of Robin and young Stuteley.
"Who are these, Warrenton?" called out a low, hushed voice.
Warrenton answered not, save with his half-warning, half-commanding sign. But as the stranger drew near, apparently come to a decision, the Squire's man spoke.
"It is your cousin, Master Geoffrey, and his esquire. They are here from Locksley."
"So, 'tis my kinsman, Robin, who has tried to startle me?" said the stranger, as Robin drew near to him. "Greetings, cousin; here's my hand to you for all that you come to supplant me. Nay! I bear no ill-will. Gamewell has no charms in my eyes compared with those of a life of freedom."
"Is it Geoffrey, indeed?" asked young Fitzooth, gazing with both eyes wide. He had looked to see his cousin young as himself, and here was a man before him, bearded and bronzed, of nigh thirty summers. He was clad in sombre clothes, and wore upon his shoulders a great scarlet cape, cut extravagantly in the Norman fashion. Suddenly Robin laughed, heartily and frankly.
"Yellow, Will, yellow, forsooth? Are you color-blind, friend? Cousin Geoffrey, we had believed you none other than the yellow-clad damsel who walks here at Hallow-e'en. Forgive us the discourtesy, I pray you. Here is my hand and good fellowship in it. I am to relinquish all right to Gamewell ground at the end of a year an I like—such were your father's terms. I do doubt whether I may stay so long as that."
He spoke fearlessly. The two cousins embraced each other, and for an instant Geoffrey gave play to his better self; then, next moment, suspicion returned upon him.
"I am but come to see you, Warrenton, on a small matter. I must have a horse and armor and a lance, that I may ride at Nottingham in the joustings. I shall be disguised, and will wear my visor down: a hungry wolf prowling unrecognized about his lord's domain."
His speech was bitter and his voice harsh. "Kinsman," added he, to Robin, "do you keep still tongue in the business, and tell your squire to be as discreet. I am outlawed in England and have no right in it——"
"That is not so, Geoffrey; surely your father will forgive——"
"It is in the King's hands, cousin. My father has no voice in it, nor would desire to speak again for me, I trow. I have heard all that he hath already done in my behoof, Warrenton—the item was brought to me circuitously. Now I will keep you no longer: this hut has been and will be my shelter until the horse and arms are brought here to me."
"I'll saddle him myself for you, coz: and choose you as stout a lance as Gamewell can provide. Let me help you in this, and be to you always a true friend."
"You speak soothly, young Robin, and it may be with sincerity. I'll trust you then." Geoffrey drew him on one side. "See that the trappings and armor be of good steel and furbished with red leather: let the note of them be steel and scarlet. No device upon the shield, if you should think to bring me one; and stay, I would like the sword-hilt and the lance to be bound in red. Thus may you know me, if so be you are at the jousts; but be secret, and trust no other man than Warrenton. I'll wait you here at midnight—have no fear of the yellow ghost, kinsman!"
"You'll be as red as she is yellow, cousin," whispered back Robin, with smiling face. "I'll do your behest, and attend you in this pleasance to-night at twelve o' th' clock. My squire can be trusted, I well believe."
"Believe in no man until you have tried him, coz," answered Geoffrey. He paused. "Does Master Montfichet keep well in health, kinsman?" he asked.
"He is well, now, but has been indisposed.... Yesterday at Nottingham——"
"Ay, I heard of the doings there—no matter how," muttered the other, hastily. "Tell me that he is restored again; and that you will keep him from harm always as valiantly as you did then. Does your father still guard the forest at Locksley? 'Tis many years since I have seen Master Fitzooth, but thy mother hath always been kindly disposed to me. Farewell."
He nodded to Warrenton, and slipped back to the little hut, and they heard him push the bolts after him. Robin turned to Stuteley.
"Will, speak not of this meeting with anyone save Warrenton. I have promised for you."
"Right, master; the matter has already passed from my mind. Shall we try our skill at archery? Warrenton can find me a bow, and I'll fetch yours from the hall. Here comes a priest; surely he were good mark for us had we our arrows here! And with him behold a forester of the King—green-clad and carrying a royal longbow. Do you beg it of him, master mine, whilst I seek yours. I go."
Young Stuteley hurried across the green, whilst Robin advanced to meet the Clerk of Copmanhurst and the captain of the King's Foresters. They were in earnest converse, and clearly had not spied the gay cloak of Geoffrey Montfichet.
Warrenton, with significant gesture to Robin, began a lecture on the making and choosing of arrows, as he walked beside his master's guest.
"Are you talking of arrow-making, friend?" asked the forester, overhearing them. "Now I will tell you the true shape and make of such shafts as our Will o' th' Green uses," he struck in. "One bare yard are they in length, and are sealed with red silk, and winged with the feathers of an eagle."
"Peacock," corrected the clerk, interposing. "You're wrong, Master Ford, as I will prove. Here is the head of one of Will's bolts, dropped in the greenwood on the day you rescued us from him. I have kept it in my pouch, for 'tis a pretty thing." He laughed all over his jolly face. "Here, Robin, keep it, and learn therefrom how not to make arrows, for vanity is a sin to be avoided and put on one side. The plainer the barb the straighter does it fly, as all true bowmen must admit."
He took Robin's hand, soon as the lad had fastened the trophy in his belt. "I have been bidden to you by the Master of Gamewell. He would speak with you, Robin; and I do counsel you to give all heed and weight to his words, and be both prudent and obedient in your answerings to him."
They moved together towards the hall, whilst Warrenton and the forester argued still on the matter of winging arrows.
It was Warrenton who brought Master Geoffrey his red-armored steed and lance, after all; for, although Robin had had a voice in the choosing of the horse, and had helped the retainer to bind the shaft and interlace the cuirass and gyres with riband such as the knight had ordered, events stayed Robin from going out with these appurtenances of war to the Lady's Bower.
Young Fitzooth had been commanded to his mother's chamber so soon as he had come out from his converse with the Squire. There befell an anxious interview, Mistress Fitzooth arguing for and against the Squire's project in a breath. Robin was perplexed indeed: his ambition was fired by the Squire's rosy pictures of what he, as a true Montfichet, must adhere to without fail upon assuming the name and mantle of Gamewell.
Most of all Robin thought of his father. What would he counsel? "Remain Fitzooth, and fight your own way in the world, boy." That is what he might say. In the end Robin decided to sleep upon the matter. In any case he would not consent to rob Geoffrey of his inheritance; and he told old Gamewell this to his face. "When I am gone you can do what you will with the place, boy," the old man had answered. "I have no son; but, of course, the fees and revenues will be yours. If, for a whim, you beggar yourself, I cannot stay you. But take it whilst I live; and wear Montfichet's shield in the days when my eyes can be rejoiced by so brave a sight, for you will ne'er disgrace our 'scutcheon, I warrant me. Perchance 'tis Geoffrey's sole chance that you should wear the badge of Gamewell. I might choose to bequeath it elsewhere."
The lad had checked him then. "Never that, sir," he had said. "Let Gamewell land be ruled, for ever, by Gamewell's proper lord. I pray you to let me take counsel with my mother ere I answer you."
"It is what I would suggest myself. Go to her."
Then had come the argument with his mother, which had unsettled him more than before.
He went down to discuss with Warrenton and Stuteley the means by which they best could bring the horse and arms to Geoffrey, and it soon became evident that no one other than Warrenton dare attempt it, for fear of betraying the son to his still angry father.
"Are you sure, Warrenton, that you will perform this business right carefully?" Robin asked, over and over again, until the old servant became vexed.
"I am part of the house of Montfichet, lording," snapped Warrenton, at last, "and it is not reasonable to think that I will turn against myself, as it were. Be sure that the horse and his trappings will be safely carried to my second master, Geoffrey, at the hour given. Do you keep the Squire employed in talk; and find excuse to lie in the little room next to his own that you may hear him if he moves."
So Robin and Will went back to the hall, and presently the Squire's voice was heard through the arras which covered the north entrance to the apartment. He was in deep converse with the clerk, and entered the hall holding him by the arm. For a moment Robin and Will were unperceived; then the Squire's bright, keen eyes discovered them.
"Now to bed, boy!" cried he, dropping his detaining hold of the priest. "'Tis late; and I go myself within a short space. Dismiss your squire, Robin, and bid me good e'en. An early sleeper maketh a sound man."
"Did I see you with Warrenton, Robin Fitzooth?" put in the clerk, curiously. "I would fain have some talk with him on the matter of archery. I am told that this old man can draw as pretty a bow as any in Nottingham."
"As any in England, I would say," said Gamewell, proudly. "That is, in his day. Now that age is upon Warrenton and his master, cunning in such matters is to seek. Yet he will teach you a few tricks when morning is come. Now kiss me, boy, and keep clear head and ready hand for the joustings and games to-morrow. Good night; God keep thee, Robin."
He seemed to take it for granted that Robin would, in the end, consent to become of the house of Gamewell. Already Squire George looked upon him as heir to the hall and its acres; even as slowly did Warrenton, the shrewd and faithful man-at-arms. Truth to tell, the old servant did not regard the prospect with too kind an eye.
Young Fitzooth embraced his uncle, and bade him good night with real affection. There was no chance to alter his sleeping-room to one nearer to Gamewell's chamber.
When he had reached his chamber, again came the suspicion of Warrenton. Robin unfastened his tunic slowly and thoughtfully. Presently he crossed the floor of his room with decided step.
"Will," cried he, softly; and Stuteley, who had chosen his couch across the door of his young master's chamber, sprang up at once in answer.
"Do you hold yourself ready, Will, so soon as the house is asleep. We will go out together to the bower; there is a way down to the court from my window. Rest and be still until I warn you."
Stuteley replied in a word to him; and, blowing out his taper, Robin returned to his bed and flung himself upon it in patient expectation.
The hours passed wearily by, and movement could yet be heard about the hall. The open lattice gave entry to all sound from the court below; and from his window Robin could tell when the tapers in the hall were extinguished. Thrice he got up from his bed, and his stock of patience was slipping from him.
At last all was quiet and black in the courtyard of Gamewell.
"Will," whispered Robin, opening his door as he spoke, "are you ready?"
Stuteley nodded as he entered on pointed toes.
"From the window," explained Robin, pushing him towards the lattice. A faint starry radiance illumined the sky, and dim shadows held the angles and nooks of the court below them.
A dense ivy clung to and covered the walls of the house. To one of light and agile body it gave fair footing. Robin had hands and feet in it in a moment; and cautiously, adroitly came to the ground, and signalled to Will Stuteley.
The little ex-tumbler would have liked to have done tricks and shown his cleverness in the business, had there been time for it: as it was, Will dropped beside Robin lightly and easily, and instantly the two began to cross the court.
It was necessary for them to climb over the stables at their left hand. Some dogs, hearing these quiet, stealthy footfalls, began to bay furiously: and both the youths stayed themselves until the beasts went grumbling and suspicious back to the kennels.
They then renewed their journey, and, under the better light, made a safe crossing of the stable-roofs.
They managed at length to win the gardens, and then raced across the open ground to gain the shelter of the yew-trees bordering the bower. The pleasance, in the soft moonlight, looked ghostly enough: the statues and stone ornaments placed about the place seemed to be instinct with life and to wave signals of horror to Will's starting eyes.
At last they approached the hut, and Robin saw in the bright moonlight that the door gaped black at them. There was no sign to betray either Warrenton or Geoffrey to him. Robin entered the hut, dragging the unwilling esquire after him.
A draught of chill air puffed in their faces as they entered; and a great owl blundered screamingly out into the night, the rush and noise of it startling Will to a cold ecstasy of terror. He would have plunged madly back to the hall had not Robin held firmly to him.
"Be not so foolish, friend," said Fitzooth, crossly. His voice took his father's tone, as always happened when he was angered.
They moved thereafter cautiously about the hut, groping before and about them to find something to show that Warrenton had fulfilled his mission. Presently Will stumbled and fell, pulling down Robin atop of him.
Robin, putting out his hand to save himself, found that his fingers grasped nothing but air. They were upon the verge of an open trap, in the far corner of the hut; and Stuteley had tripped over the edge of the reversed flap-mouth of this pit. Fitzooth's hand rested at last upon the top rung of a ladder, and slowly the truth came to him. Quickly he drew himself up and whispered the discovery to the other.
In an instant, then, their fears were dispelled. Will would have gone down first into the pit had not Robin stayed him. Stuteley was anxious that his young master should come to no harm; and where a danger appeared an earthly one, he was quite willing to bear the brunt of it. It was thought of the Yellow Woman which dried up all the courage in his small, wiry body.
Robin carefully descended the ladder and found himself soon upon firm rocky ground. Stuteley was by his side in a flash: and then they both began feeling about them to ascertain the shape and character of this vault. Hardly had they commenced when Robin's quick ears took warning. Sound of a quiet approach was plain.
The darkness of the pit was suddenly illumined, and the lads found themselves suddenly faced by the beams of a lanthorn suspended at about a man's height in the air. From the blackness behind the light they heard a voice—Warrenton's!
"Save me, masters, but you startled me rarely!" cried he, waving the lanthorn before him to make sure that these were no ghosts in front of him. "I have but this minute left Master Montfichet, having carried his horse to him in safety. He rides into Nottingham to-morrow, unattended. I would that I might be squire to him!"
"Did you indeed bring horse and arms down this ladder, Warrenton?" enquired Robin, with his suspicions still upon him. "Truly such a horse should be worth much in Nottingham Fair! I would dearly have loved to see so brave a business——"
"Nay, nay, lording," answered Warrenton, with a half-laugh. "See"—and again he waved his light, showing them where the underground passage, for such it was, sloped upward to another and larger trap, now closed. "This way is one of the many secret ones about Gamewell, master: but do you keep the knowledge of it to yourselves, I beg, unless you would wish hurt to our future lord of Gamewell."
Warrenton spoke thus with significance, to show Robin that he was not to think Geoffrey's claims to the estate would be passed by. Robin Fitzooth saw that his doubts of Warrenton had been unfair: and he became ashamed of himself for harboring them.
"Give me your hand, Warrenton, and help me to climb these steps," said he, openly. "'Tis dark, for all your lamp; and I fain would feel friendly assistance, such as you can give."
His tones rang pleasantly on Warrenton's ears, and forthwith a good-fellowship was heralded between them. This was to mean much to the young hero of Locksley in the time to come; for Warrenton's help and tuition were to make Robin Fitzooth something far better than the clever bowman he was already. This night, in a way, saw the beginning of Robin's fortunes and strange, adventurous after-life.
The old servant told him quietly as they crept back to Gamewell that this passage-way led from the hut in the pleasance to Sherwood; and that Geoffrey for the time was hiding with the outlaws in the forest. "Our master is to be recognized by us as the Scarlet Knight at Nottingham Fair should one ask of us, lording," Warrenton told him. "He implores us to be discreet as the grave in this matter, for in sooth his life is in the hollow of our hands."
The old servant spoke no more. In silence he led them back into Gamewell by the private door through the stables by which he had himself emerged.
They regained their apartment, apparently without disturbing the household of Gamewell. Only did one pair of eyes and ears look and listen for them, and observe both their exit and return. It was the Clerk of Copmanhurst's door that stood ajar; his busy mind that employed itself in speculation as to the cause and meaning of this midnight adventure.
Geoffrey Montfichet's reason for wishing to be known as the Scarlet Knight was no idle whimsey, as the others had guessed.
To John's rebellion against his father, Henry of England, the younger Montfichet had given himself body and soul. The Prince had shown him kindness, and now that the rebellion had failed, Geoffrey felt it incumbent upon him to remain with the beaten side, and endeavor to recover the advantage lost to them. To this end he now journeyed through the Midlands in many disguises, trying to stir up the outlaws and robbers of the forests to take up arms with John, under a promise that the Prince (if successful) would grant them amnesty and a goodly share of the spoils sure to fall to them.
A spy was to attend at Nottingham Fair to know how matters had progressed with the outlaws of Sherwood; but, since it was too dangerous to attempt an open meeting, Geoffrey had arranged a simple code of signalling, by color.
Did he appear as a knight unknown and disinherited, bound on his arms and steed with red trappings, the spy, eyeing him from beside the Sheriff of Nottingham, would know that Will o' th' Green was to be trusted, and would promptly bear the joyful news to his Royal Master. Had sad black been the note, John's man would have guessed that friends were still to seek about Nottingham.
Thus we know that Master Will had more reasons than one for appearing as a wizard at Nottingham Fair. He had gone here chiefly to bear a scroll to the Prince's emissary, and to declare fealty to John; but the affair of the tumblers and Robin's discovery of him had warned Master Will not to stay over long in the town, so Geoffrey had to depend upon his plan of appearing as the Scarlet Knight.
The morning broke dull and threateningly over Gamewell. Robin and his esquire slept late; but no one offered to disturb their slumbers. The monk knew full well that there was good cause for his pupil's fatigue; and had set himself to discover the true meaning of it. "Boy," said he to Robin, "I pray that you do not think upon Nottingham to-day. There will be a storm and much rain. The mud in the meadows of Nottingham will surely spoil the bravery of the Fair, and show us too plainly how trumpery and vain a matter it is."
"For that cause alone will we go, dear friend," retorted Robin. "It will be a lesson to us. With you beside us to point the moral, much benefit shall accrue, for sure. Father," Robin added, "come with us now to the pleasance. There Warrenton is to show me how to notch arrows and pick a courtly bow."
"I have no great wisdom in the game, boy; yet readily will I go with you."
The three of them went in search of Warrenton; and found him with the captain of the foresters.
Dame Fitzooth and the Squire followed later to the pleasance, and there one and all tried conclusions. Robin soon found that Warrenton could teach him much; and he was too anxious to excel in the conduct of the bow to neglect this chance of learning the many secrets of it. "Men shall talk of you"—Fitzooth's own words to him—always rang in his heart whenever he drew the cord and fitted ash across yew.
Warrenton took great pleasure in showing Robin some of the tricks in which he was so perfect; and explained them so well that ere an hour had gone the lad had learned and mastered them.
"Lording," said the old servant, watching him as he essayed successfully an exercise shown him but a few minutes before. "Lording, I do not doubt that you will carry away with you to-day the Sheriff's prize from the older bowmen of Nottingham! You have a keen eye for it, and your fingers seem comfortable upon the yew—which is the sign and mark of a good archer. Now, bear in mind this golden rule: that the feet are to be placed at true angles, with the line of the mark running, as it were, fairly through the heels: thus," and he took the position, fitted an arrow to his bow, and, scarce looking towards the target, flew his shaft so straightly as to pierce the very center of the bull. "Try now to notch the arrow," said Warrenton, with pardonable pride.
Robin shook his head and laughed.
"Ay, but you shall make far better than that, lording, an I have the handling of you!" cried Warrenton. "Now take this bow and these arrows which I have chosen; and we will set forth for Nottingham. We have an hour's journey."
On the way to Nottingham, Robin's mind was so full of all that had lately happened that he lagged behind the others and at last found himself quite alone.
This was where the road curved through the last of the forest about Nottingham. Warrenton and Master Ford of the foresters were at a renewed discussion on longbow against crossbow; and Will Stuteley had become so interested in the matter as to have poked his little horse between the others. Robin trotted his steed to come up with them; then, suddenly spying a brooklet among the trees upon his left hand, found himself mightily athirst. He slipped from off the back of his grey jennet and tethered the beast by the roadside.
The brook was fouled near the highroad from the passing of heavy carts and wagons, so Robin pushed down it into the thicker wood.
Finding that now the stream ran pure and limpid, Robin flung himself flat among the bracken and rushes, and dipped his face in the cool water. He drank heartily, and lay there for a while in lazy content, hid by the undergrowth and bracken.
A whinnying from his jennet warned him at length that he must push on with speed if he intended to rejoin the others ere Nottingham gate was reached. Robin turned himself about, preparatory to rising, then hastily shrank back into the shelter afforded by the ferns.
Two men approached noiselessly through the forest. They carried bows and were clad in russet brown. Robin, in that brief glimpse, recognized two of Master Will's free-booting band.
The outlaws walked side by side in earnest conversation. Their mutterings were at first unintelligible to Robin; but, by hazard, they paused close to where he lay hid. Young Fitzooth knew that he would have small chance with these fellows should they espy him.
Said one, an evil-looking man, with a dirty grizzled beard: "Our Will seems to me, friend Roger, to be of open heart towards this youngling. He has given him the key of the forest at first word, as if the place were free to all. Had you the knowledge of it so soon, Roger? Tell me, lad."
He spoke sneeringly and with meaning. Robin strained his ears to distinguish the other's reply. "Friend," said Number Two, at last, and speaking in a smooth, milky sort of way, "friend, I would rather counsel you to adopt a persuasive argument with the Scarlet Knight, should we chance on him. I would have no violence done, an it may be avoided, being a man opposed to lawlessness in heart, as you know. It is my eternal misfortune which has brought me to this life."
"Tush! 'tis for murder of an old man at York! I know your story, Roger; seek not to impose upon me."
"He was a Jew, dear friend, and did grievously provoke me. But we have a matter in hand. This man has doubtless been sent in to spy upon us. I have no belief in the faith of these Norman nobles. Further, he has upon his head a goodly sum of money, as I well know. Wherefore, if chance should yield him to our hands, it would seem right and proper that we should bind him."
"Ay, hard and fast, Roger. You have it."
"Bind him with a vow, Micah, but not with ropes and wickedness. Yet should your dagger inadvertently prick him——"
"Be sure that it will, Roger. Some inward voice warns me that it will."
The other made a sign to the last speaker to speak more quietly. Robin cocked his ears in vain, but he had heard enough to show him that the shadow of a great evil was stalking behind his cousin, and without further thought decided that he must save him.
The two villains stood together a plaguey time perfecting their plans, and Robin dared scarcely breathe. Once, when he attempted to wriggle his way through the bracken, at the first sound of movement both men had become utterly silent, showing that they had heard and waited to hear again.
"A squirrel, friend," said the one called Roger at last, and Robin took heart again.
However, knowing that presently they must espy his jennet tethered by the road, Robin became desperate. He writhed his body snake-like through the ferns until he came to the edge of the brook; then, covered by the noise of the falling water, essayed to creep up the course of the stream.
The distance from the road could scarcely have been two hundred ells, but it seemed to Robin more like to a league. He got his feet and legs wet and bemired; and cut his hands over the rocks about the brook. Yet he came nearer and nearer still to the roadway without having given alarm.
Robin saw at length the close turf which bordered the road, and spied his little grey horse. Forthwith he rose to his feet and made a bold dash for it.
The jennet was untethered and Robin upon its back in a flash; then the lad heard the whizz of an arrow past him. He bent his head down close to the neck of his jennet and whispered a word into its ear. The little mare, shaking herself suddenly to a gallop, understood; and now began a race between bow and beast.
These outlaws were no common archers, for sure. Twice did their shafts skim narrowly by Robin and his flying steed; the third time a sudden pricking told the youth that he was struck in the back.
He had no time for thought of pain. Everything depended on the beast under him. He pressed his legs softly but firmly against her streaming sides.
She was more swift in the end than the cruel arrows. Robin saw the countryside flashing by him through a cloud of dust; saw that Nottingham gate was reached; that a party with surprised faces watched his furious approach. The little mare swayed and rolled as she went, and Robin came to the ground, with the outlaw's arrow still in him. He was conscious that someone ran to him and lifted him tenderly: he perceived dimly, through circling blackness, the anxious face of Stuteley.