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 forgo 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 price 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 thickset 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."
"Today 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
[paragraph continues] 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 centre of the table was made of flat green glass. "Look steadily, and tell me what you see."
"I see through it the grass on 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 southwest 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 centre 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.