SQUIRE GEORGE left them next morning. He bade Warrenton stay at Locksley, and charged young Stuteley to let him know if the dame or his master should want for aught. Then, having pressed some money upon his sister to meet their necessities, he bade them affectionate farewell.
He took Robin's letter to Monceux, and added his own request to it, never doubting that so ordinary a matter as this would be long a-doing. The Rangership of Locksley Woods was Robin's by every right: for the house and garden had been given to Hugh Fitzooth in perpetuity by the King. So at least they all had understood.
Master Monceux, lord Sheriff of Nottingham, took the letters and read them with a thin smile; then bore them to his daughter's chamber, and laid them before her. "Truly the enemies of our King are not lacking in audacity," sneered Master Monceux, when Mistress Monceux had mastered the scrolls.
"What will you do?" asked she, curiously.
"This is the young archer who won my arrow," remarked the Sheriff. "Robin Fitzooth of Locksley. Observe that his father has been killed by one of the King's deer; like as not whilst he was attempting to snare it. His son asks now for the post: this son who shoots with a peacocked arrow to win my prize."
"Say you so? Then this boy is of the outlaws of Sherwood?" Her thin lips parted over her white teeth in an evil doubt, as she asked her father: "How do you know that the arrow was winged with a peacock's feather? Did you see it yourself?"
"John Ford brought it to me."
"Ford is a very untrustworthy knave. I would that some other of the foresters had told you."
The Sheriff was vexed at this. "I have no hesitation in the matter, child. But give heed, for now I must either agree to this recommendation of my lord Montfichet, or refuse it because I have already appointed some other to the place. Can you not suggest a man to me?"
"Let it be one distasteful both to Montfichet and to this boastful youth," said the demoiselle Monceux, eagerly. "Send Ford, or one of the scullions from our kitchen, that they may know our contempt for them. And bid the young archer to us here; he should be whipped and put in the stocks," she added, vindictively.
"Will you reply to those scrolls then, child?" said the Sheriff, glad to be relieved of a task which he did not relish. "Let it be Ford; he is captain of the foresters hereabouts, and has been staying at Gamewell. I hear that young Locksley is not overfond of him. But be discreet in your scrivening, and say only that which is necessary, child."
"I will bring the letters when they are penned, and will read them to you," said his daughter.
In due course, then, came the Sheriff's reply to Robin's request. It was couched in arrogant terms, and bade the youth report himself within ten days at Nottingham Castle in order that the question of his appointment to a post in the King's Foresters might be weighed and considered. As for the Rangership of Locksley, that had already been given to one Master John Ford, who would take up the duties so soon as Robin and Mistress Fitzooth could arrange to render him the house at Locksley and all it contained. To this end the Sheriff's messenger was empowered to take stock and inventory of all furniture and belongings and to make note of all things broken or in disrepair, since those would have to be counted against them when they left the place.
Robin, not knowing the worse indignities that were to befall did he come to Nottingham, for reply flung the letter into the messenger's face.
"Go, take back this answer to your master," flamed the lad. "Locksley is my mother's and my own and not the Sheriff of Nottingham's. Further, tell him that I will administer Locksley Woods, and the men
shall obey me even as they did my father: and this is all that I say in answer to your insolent lord."
"Take this also, fellow," cried Stuteley, heroically: "that my master's squire will very instantly do battle on his behalf with all enemies at quarterstaff, singlestick, or at wrestling with the hands."
"Be sure that you will need practise in all your tricks, friend," snarled the messenger, wrathfully; "Master Monceux will send you enough of pupils and to spare! And I will be glad to have a bout with you."
"Now, if you sicken for't," said Will, valiantly; but Robin bade him be still.
The messenger went back to Nottingham; and Robin continued to go about the duties of a ranger.
On the fifth day after the man's visit, however, one of the Locksley foresters refused to obey young Fitzooth, saying that he had no right to command him.
"I have this right, that you shall obey me!" cried Robin, and he bade Warrenton and Stuteley to seize the man and deprive him of his longbow and quiver. Nor would he suffer the forester to become repossessed of them until he had humbly asked pardon. Thereafter, seeing that this youth had a man's determination, the men remained loyal to him.
Within ten days came Master Ford himself, at the head of ten fellows, armed with such powers of forcible entry as the Sheriff could grant. Robin received the forester civilly, but told him plainly that Locksley was his and that he would keep it to his death.
Master Ford smiled very superior to these brave words. "Death, Master Robin, is a thing a long way off from us both, I do conceive," said he, "therefore is there small valiance in your prating so lightly of it. This matter is one not between ourselves, howbeit, for the Rangership has come to me through no seeking of mine own. The quarrel, if there be one, is between yourself and Master Monceux; and, in reason, you should let me into possession here, and take your anger to Nottingham."
"I speak to the Sheriff in that I speak to you, John Ford," retorted the lad: "and you have had your answer. Take back your men and yourself;
be content with the captaincy of the foresters of Sherwood. This part of the forest will be administered, under the King's pleasure, by me."
"What if I could show you the King's dismissal of your father?" snarled the other.
"If you could show it to me, you would," answered Robin, calmly.
"Nevertheless, I will show it to you, insolent," cried Master Ford, losing his temper. "In Nottingham we can play at other games than those you saw at the Fair, Robin o' th' Hood," he went on, furiously, and giving Robin this name out of desire to prick him.
To young Robin the epithet recalled a sudden vision of the maid Fitzwalter and her queer little toss of her curls as she had christened him. Ford must have been near to have overheard it. So was there double insult in his words.
Robin looked him full in the face, and then turned contemptuously from him. "Play all the games you know, friend," said he: and walked into the house.
The forester bit his lip in vexation. He scarce knew how to act. The Sheriff had told him to take forcible possession of the house, but this might only be done now after a sanguinary encounter. For Warrenton, the Squire of Gamewell's man, was there, and had eyed him malevolently, and talk with the Locksley foresters had shown them to be now ranged on Robin's side.
After waiting for three hours, Master Ford set about a return into Nottingham, meaning to ask for permission to bring back the Sherwood foresters with him to Locksley. In his return he was met by Will o' th' Green and his men near Copmanhurst, was beaten and robbed of all he had, and sent back in ignominious fashion into Nottingham town--he and all the ten men that the Sheriff had sent with him!
Master Ford made a fine story of this for the greedy ears of Mistress Monceux. She had always disliked the maid Fitzwalter; and had now seen a chance to injure her through Robin. Since he had given this girl the arrow which he had denied to her, the Sheriff's daughter, there could be no doubt that strong friendship, at the least, existed between them, so that any blow at Robin must recoil upon Mistress Fitzwalter.
Demoiselle Monceux therefore credited largely Master Ford's story.
"Go to the hall, and there await my father, Master Ford," said Mistress Monceux, at last. "I will speak again with him when he has returned from Gamewell. He is there now on your behalf, in a way," she added, meaningly.
Monceux, knowing that Montfichet would require an explanation of the refusal to instal Robin in his father's place, had set himself out to be beforehand with the Squire. At once he had endeavored to satisfy old Gamewell by telling him the story of the peacocked arrow. "Readily can I unfold that mystery to you," said Montfichet. "Our Robin was pursued by two of the outlaws when on the way to your tourney. 'Tis like enough that he picked up one of their arrows."
"When they were in chase of him?" asked the Sheriff, with ready reply.
"Well, that is true; and yet, stay--I do mind me that the Clerk of Copmanhurst did speak of some shooting match in which Robin was forced to employ himself with Will o' th' Green, on the day that they journeyed here from Locksley. Then it was that Robin must have become owner of the peacocked arrow. The thing is quite plain to me."
"The clerk himself has been suspected of colleaguing with these robbers of the forest, friend Gamewell," whispered the Sheriff, leaning forward towards the Squire. "And they do say that Will was at our tourney--was none other, indeed, than the very Roughbeard from whom young Robin so cleverly did snatch my arrow of gold. Nay, nay, I think the evidence points very strongly against Fitzooth; yet since he is your nephew I have forborne to press my charge against him."
"I believe no harm of Robin," said the Squire, decisively.
"Still you will see there is reason in my refusal of his request," smiled Monceux. And old Gamewell had to agree, although unwillingly.
So were the clouds upon Robin's horizon gathering apace.
He gravely continued in his duties at Locksley, filling up his leisure with long and frequent practise in archery with Warrenton. A month went by and he had heard no more of Master Ford nor of the Sheriff, and so engrossed did Robin become in his present life and the necessity of making a living for them all that Master Monceux, his summons, and his "appointment" of Ford were forgotten.
He killed such of the deer as his father had, under the King's charter, for their own sustenance, and gathered the fruits from the garden at Locksley. There were cows to be milked and sheep to be sheared.
The men worked for him without question. There had been no further rebellion since Warrenton and Stuteley had so promptly checked the first sign of it.
The Squire had sent twice to them such presents as he knew they would accept, and he made no mention of Master Monceux.
Only one matter troubled Robin. Soon would come round the time when the emoluments of the Rangership would be due; and then Robin would have to face the Sheriff and make him pay the moneys.
Having stifled any objections Montfichet might have had to his refusal to recognize Robin as Ranger, the Sheriff was quite content to bide his time, knowing that once in Nottingham, Robin would be entirely in his power. Unforeseen events, however, upset these schemes and hastened matters, even while Robin was perfecting himself in the use of the longbow under Warrenton and in the art of wrestling with little lithe Stuteley. The lean-faced man whom he saw at the tourney returned suddenly to Nottingham from London, bearing news to the Sheriff that he was to prepare the town at once for a visit from the young Prince John.
Master Simeon Carfax, to give the lean-faced one his full style, bade them arrange for a great tourney to be held in Sherwood itself.
"Certes, Prince John may well be King over us in the end," murmured the Sheriff to himself; and he dismissed all thought of Robin and his defiance.
The Sheriff had some suspicion that Master Carfax had had more to do with this sudden visit of the erstwhile rebellious Prince than that pinch-nosed gentleman would allow. Further, he saw with some misgiving that between Carfax and his own daughter there was an understanding, and he decided to speak firmly with her, but, as she was still vexed with him for not having dealt with young Fitzooth as promptly as she had designed, the Sheriff thought it wise to wait his opportunity.
Meanwhile Robin passed his days equably: and now he could notch Warrenton's shaft at one hundred paces, a feat difficult in the extreme.
The old retainer took huge delight in training the lad. "I do hear of a brave business in archery to be done in Sherwood Forest," he said, "and I would have you enter there in the lists, and bear away the Prince's bag of gold, even as you did the Sheriff's arrow."
"Tell me of this, Warrenton," cried Robin, interested at once. "Where did you learn this item?"
"'Twas told to me a week agone by the Friar of Copmanhurst, a right worthy, pious gentleman," gabbled Warrenton. "It seems that the young Prince is already tired of London ways and the Court of his father the King, and has agreed to come here to us at Nottingham so that he may be more free. He brings with him many of the fine ladies of the Court, and full a hundred score of followers. And they do tell me that some of the barons are with him, Master Fitzurse to wit. Howbeit, 'tis no matter of ours. We have but to remember that he has offered a purse of a hundred pieces to the best bowman in Nottingham town. That purse should be yours, lording."
Robin smiled at the old man's emphatic speech. "When is this prize to be offered, Warrenton, and what other marvels are there to be?"
The man-at-arms commenced afresh. "There is to be a tourney, held in Sherwood Forest."
"Ay; but the archery?"
"I have told you that the Prince offers a fine prize. Know also that he brings with him Hubert, the most renowned of all archers, so that he deems the prize already won. The Prince puts a hundred gold pieces into the purse, and Hubert pockets it in advance."
"Is he a fair bowman, this Hubert?"
"I know but one archer better than he, lording--yourself; and I have seen the finest archery in the world."
"You talk heedlessly, Warrenton," said Robin, rebuking him. Yet secretly he was flattered by this sincere belief in him.
"I'll go with you to Nottingham--and Stuteley shall stay here, on guard," said Robin. I
But Stuteley begged most earnestly that he should be allowed to go also, so that Robin came nigh to giving up the plan all together. For he would not consent to leave the dame unprotected.
In the end Warrenton himself, with fine self-sacrifice, offered to remain at Locksley.
"It will be wisest that you should go unattended, after all, lording," concluded Warrenton. "Enter the lists unknown, unannounced, as though you were some forester. Master Monceux means no good to you, and surely he will be there. So be circumspect; and forget not the things that I have taught you. Beat Hubert if you can, but be not overcome if you should fail. He is a very pretty bowman, and experienced."