Profiting by a lesson learned from Will o' th' Green, Robin stained his face and bade Stuteley do the same ere starting to the Royal tourney.
The morning was overcast and doubtful when the two lads set forth. They had put on foresters' clothes of green cloth, with long tunics and green trunk hose. Their hands and faces were brown as walnut juice could make them; and whilst Robin carried only his best longbow and a good quiver of arrows, young Will had loaded himself with quarterstaff, axe, and pike, all very difficult to carry.
Robin bade him leave one or the other of these weapons, and reluctantly the pike was returned to Warrenton. Then merrily they started away through the forest, and came at noon to that glade where Robin had first met Will o' th' Green. Even while Robin wondered whether Will or his men might again demand toll of him, Master Will himself suddenly appeared, and without a word placed his bow across their path.
"Greetings to you, Will," said Robin, blithely. "Is it toll of us that you desire?"
"Are you dumb, friend?" added Stuteley, impudently, as the outlaw made no immediate reply.
Will smiled then. "So old Warrenton has persuaded you to seek the Prince's gold, youngling?" said he, at last. Without waiting an answer, he stepped back and withdrew his bow. "Pass, then, Locksley, and good fortune attend you," he went on. "We may meet again ere the day be done; but it is not sure--"
"You will not try for the purse, Will?" cried Robin, as if surprised.
"I have no use for it," answered Will, with some egotism. "Nay, fear not, our third trial is yet to come. I did but stay you to speak of your cousin--" He paused, and glanced towards Stuteley.
"I am deaf and dumb as you were, friend, a minute agone," spoke the little esquire.
"Your cousin, Geoffrey of Montfichet, has gone to France," continued Will, speaking freely so soon as Robin had nodded in confirmation of Stuteley's discretion. "Like as not, Master Geoffrey has not talked with you as to his business with us in this greenwood?"
"I know nothing beyond that we did bind my cousin's armor about with red ribbon," replied Robin, uneasily. He remembered the clerk's warning, and a presentiment of coming evil pricked him. "But I am right glad that Geoffrey has encountered no danger, and has given up his schemes with you."
"I did not say that he had done that, Locksley," spoke Will, in his gruff way. "Nor do I see why you should fear danger for him when he is in my company."
"I meant not that, Will, believe me," said Robin, hastily. "But there are two amongst your band who have little love for my cousin, and are jealous also of you--" And he told him of his adventure in the early part of the day when they last had met.
Will listened with a frown. "So they winged you, youngling, and yet for all that you won the Sheriff's arrow? Give me now some token whereby I may know which of my men are traitors."
"I should only know their voices, Will," said Robin, regretfully.
The outlaw shrugged. "It matters not, after all," he remarked, turning to leave them. "Go your ways, Locksley, and win the purse."
"Is there no toll?" enquired Robin, smiling again. "Am I truly free of Sherwood, Will?"
"'Twould seem so, Locksley," said the outlaw, briefly. Then, without further ado, he strode away from him.
They watched his lithe form disappear.
"'Tis sure that our disguise is none too good," sighed Robin, pondering upon the ready way in which the outlaw had recognized him.
Soon afterward rain fell and a heavy storm raged amongst the trees.
[paragraph continues] The two youths crept into the hollow of one of the larger oaks to shelter themselves. Whilst waiting there they heard the noise of an approaching cavalcade. It was a body of archers coming from Lincoln to compete for the purse of gold.
They cantered past the tree wherein Robin and Stuteley lay hidden, and took no heed of the drenching rain. All were merry with wine and very confident that one amongst them would surely win the prize. The only question was, Which one?
"These Nottingham clods!" cried one, scornfully; "I'll dare swear that many of them have already promised the prize to their maids! Nottingham 'gainst Lincoln--'tis possible that they may stand to us for a round. But after that!"
"We will spend the money in Nottingham town," shouted another of the trotting bowmen. "For sure the Prince himself could do no handsomer thing. A piece I'll toss to the heralds, and another to you, Staveley, for you are a covetous worm--"
The rest of his speech was lost through the one addressed turning violently upon him and thrusting at him with his pike, thus tumbling him into the mire. Stuteley laughed outright at this, and for a moment startled the rest of this worshipful company.
Robin, rather vexed at his esquire's want of caution, came with him from out of the hollow of the tree. The Lincolnshire men halted, and Robin asked for a lift to the field where already the tourney was being commenced.
"Are you going to the Sherwood tourney, and with a bow?" asked one of the archers, loftily. "What will you shoot there, gipsy boy? There are no targets such as your shafts might reach. But 'tis true that you may learn something of the game, if you should go."
"I'll lay a crown wager with you, friends," said Stuteley, vexed to hear Robin called "gipsy," "that my master's shaft will fly more near the centre of the mark than will any one of yours. So now."
"A crown piece, gipsy! Why, that means twenty crowns for you to find," laughed another of the men, loudly.
"Twenty crowns; why, he has not twenty pence," said another.
"My man has laid the wager and I will stand to it," said Robin, quietly, "though I do not like such boasting, I promise you. Twenty
crowns to twenty crowns--who will hold the stakes? Here is my purse in warrant of my words."
"Why, Master, I am surely the very man to hold your purse!" called out the lately fallen champion, readily. "Ask any of them here and (if they have love of truth in them) they will say that Much the Miller is a man of men for honesty, sobriety, and the like! 'Tis known throughout Lincoln that never have I given short measure in all my life. Hand me the purse and be easy."
"Show me your crown, friend," said Robin, eyeing him.
"Now, stirrup me but I have given my last piece to a poor beggar whom we did meet in the wood."
"Then I will hold my purse myself, Master Much," cried Robin, putting it quickly back into his bosom. "But have no fear; if you can beat me, I'll add my crown to the Prince's moneybag. We will meet you here, friends," he continued. "beside this very tree, at noon tomorrow, if I should win. If not, I'll yield this purse to the miller ere I leave the tourney, and he shall share it round. Is it agreed?"
"I do think that you should pay for your travelling, gipsy, since you are so rich," grunted the first archer. "Here's half my saddle: I'll only ask a silver penny for a seat on it."
"I'll take you for ought, gipsy," shouted Much, who really was very tipsy. "You've spoken fair; and I like you! Come, jump up behind me, and hold tight. This horse is one of most wayward character."
"Hurry, then," said the leader. "Whilst we chatter here the tourney will be done; and we shall happen on it just as Hubert takes the prize. Forward, friends; quick march!"
They rattled off at a smart pace. Robin mounted behind the good-natured Much, and Stuteley upon the captain's horse. The miller told Robin confidentially a full score of times that he, Much, was bound to win the archery contest, being admittedly the first bowman in the world.
"Harkee, gipsy," called he at length, over the point of his shoulder to patient Robin behind him, "I'll not take your crown, I swear it! I like you, and I would not rob your sweetheart of a penny piece. Buy ribbons for her, then, with the crown I give you."
Robin expressed his thanks very cordially. This fellow seemed an
honest-hearted rogue; and 'twas mainly to his furious urging of his steed that they arrived in time for the great event.
As it was, all the jousting was done, and most of the nobles had already gone away. The Sheriff was fussily preparing himself to escort the Prince to the castle when the horns blew announcing the arrival of the Lincolnshire bowmen.
They had pushed their way clumsily through the array of tents, and now blundered into the lists through the gate. Robin was glad indeed of his stained face and semi-disguise, not being over proud of his companions. He gave Will Stuteley a signal to detach himself from them, and come to his side. The two youths then hastened to the archers' stand.
There had been three deaths already as a result of the joustings; and six others were seriously injured; yet the Prince looked far from being satisfied, and his glance strayed forever to the gate.
When the Lincoln men had come noisily trooping in, his face had lit up and his hand had made a half-movement to find the jewelled hilt of his sword. Master Carfax, too, had started to his feet in evident concern.
When the heralds announced these newcomers, visible disappointment showed on the faces of the Prince and his followers. Clearly they were eagerly expecting the appearance of other folk; but, quickly recovering himself, John refound all the old elegance of his manners. He courteously acknowledged the rough greeting of the archers, and sat back smilingly in his box.
Master Monceux gave the signal for the archery contest to be begun; and Robin soon saw that the archers against him were men very different from those who had been at Nottingham Fair.
When it came to the turn of the Prince's own bowman, Hubert of Normandy--a man slim, conceited, and overdressed, but nevertheless a very splendid archer--the first shaft flew so cleanly and so swift that it pierced the very middle of the target and stuck out on the other side full half its length.
Robin had to shoot immediately after him, and waited a few moments whilst the markers were tugging at the Norman's arrow. A sudden inspiration flashed across the lad's mind; and, advancing a step, he bade them desist. They wonderingly fell back, leaving Hubert's arrow fixed spitefully in the target.
One of the heralds cried out that this archer had not yet given in his name, but even as he spoke, Robin's arrow flew hissing from his bow. A silence fell upon the onlookers, and even the smiling Prince leaned forward in his box. Then a great shout went up of amazement and incredulity. The markers and heralds thronged about the target and hid it from the general view until they were impatiently pulled away by some of the Prince's bodyguard.
A marvel was seen then by all eyes--Robin's arrow standing stiffly out from the centre of the target, with Hubert's wand split down on either side of it flush to the very face of the mark!
Robin himself could scarcely credit his own success. He had done the thing before, with Warrenton, once out of a dozen times: and he had essayed it now more out of bravado than aught else.
"'Twas a feat worthy of Hubert himself," said the Sheriff, bombastically, to the Prince. He had not recognized Robin.
"I have seen Hubert perform just such a trick on many occasions, sir," said Carfax. "This fellow has done no uncommon thing, believe me," he went on. "And after all, he has not bettered Hubert's shot."
"That is true," said the Prince, as if thoughtfully. His face showed smiling again. "Let the contest go on: and Hubert shall shoot again with this young trickster.
"The heralds say that he has not given in his name, Sire," said one of the courtiers.
"If that is so, his shooting is of no avail, be it never so good," cried Carfax, triumphantly. "Tell them that the archer is disqualified, my lord," he continued, addressing the Sheriff; "and bid them discover who he may be."
Carfax turned again to the Prince, and began a whispered conversation with him. The Prince listened, nodding his head in approval.
"Well, Monceux, what do they say?" he asked the Sheriff, languidly, as the other returned.
"It seems, Sire, that the archer is one who came in with a company of Lincoln bowmen. No one knows him hereabout. I have said that he is disqualified, and now the others will shoot again. But Hubert has now the purse, for sure."
"In sooth I do think so," answered the Prince, laughing rather
conceitedly. "But Monceux, bid this lad to me forthwith. I would speak with him."
The Sheriff went about the task; but Robin had disappeared; for suddenly, amidst the throng, his eyes had encountered those strange grey-blue ones of Mistress Fitzwalter.
She was sitting alone in a little box nearby the targets. Robin had walked down the lists to see for himself that his shaft had split the Norman's fairly, and in turning away to find Stuteley he had become aware of her shrewd, piercing gaze. She allowed her eyes to rest fully on young Fitzooth's ardent glance for the briefest moment. Then she looked away unconcernedly.
But Robin, venturing all, drew nigh. He came to the edge of her box, and began to speak. He had gone so far as "Give you good morrow, lady," when his eyes perceived the Sheriff's little golden arrow fastening her cloak. His mouth became dry at that and his words went back in his throat.
The girl, aware of his confusion, brought her gaze back upon him. She smiled.
"Is it indeed my young champion?" asked she, rather doubtfully at first, in her low, soft tones. "Is it you who have beaten the Prince's best archer, Robin o' the' Hood?"
Her eyes were wells of innocent fun. The way in which she lingered over the last syllables brought Robin still deeper into the deep waters.
"It is your servant, madame," was all that he could find to say.
"You see then that I wear your gift, Robin," she said, trying to make him at ease. "I have not forgotten--"
"Nor I--I shall never forget," cried he, impulsively. "Your eyes are always in my memory: they are beautiful as stars," said he, fervently.
"Oh, a gallant Locksley! But there, take my colors, since you will be my knight." She untied a ribbon from her hair, and gave it into his outstretched palm. "And now, farewell; take the Prince's prize, and spend the pennies worthily. Buy your sweetheart some ribbons, but keep that which I have given you."
She tossed her curls again as she added the last word. Robin was beginning a vehement protestation that he had no sweetheart when Stuteley's voice broke in upon him.
"Master, they have disqualified you, and given the prize to Hubert. 'Tis a vile injustice, and I have raised my voice furiously. So, alas! has Master Much the Miller; he is a very worthy gentleman."
"What do you say?" asked Mistress Fitzwalter, in amazement.
"It is even so, lady, that my lord the Sheriff has ruled my master out of the court, for the reason that he did not give in his name before drawing his bow!" cried Stuteley. "A wicked conspiracy it is, and monstrous unjust! 'Tis thus that these prizes are given; the game's arranged beforehand. Ah, but I know how these Nottingham folk do plot: thrice now have I found them false and treacherous."
When Stuteley had begun there were many who were ready to side with him, but his unlucky conclusion turned these possible friends into enemies. Even Mistress Fitzwalter drew back for an instant.
"Be silent, Will," said Robin, vexed at once. "It is enough to be juggled out of this prize without your making it worse. I'll go claim it from Monceux and he shall argue it with me."
"The Prince is asking for you, friend," said Carfax, suddenly appearing. He touched Robin on the shoulder.
As he turned to depart, his gimlet eyes saw how the girl shrank away from them into her box. He looked swiftly at her; then at Robin again. "His Highness graciously condescended to enquire your name and rank," said he, pausing.
"Will he give the purse to me, then?" asked Robin, surprised.
"Nay, that has already been won by Master Hubert," answered Carfax, as if amused at the question. "You cannot win a prize every day, Master--Locksley."
He spoke at a shrewd guess, and saw that his shaft had hit the mark. Mistress Fitzwalter's interest in Robin had given him the clue.
"I'll not go to the Prince," said Robin, wrathfully. "Tell him, Master Fetch-and-Take, that I have won this prize in all fairness; and I will shoot with Hubert again, if he needs another beating."
"You'll cool your heels in the stocks, Locksley," said Carfax, viciously: "so much is evident. The Sheriff has a quarrel with you already, and 'tis well that you are here to answer Master Ford's complaint. The Prince will send for you in style, since you will not go kindly to him. Bide but a few minutes. I'll not keep you waiting!"
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Marian allowed her eyes to rest fully on young Fitzooth's ardent glance for the briefest moment. But Robin, venturing all, drew nigh
He strode off, in heat, followed by Stuteley's scornful gibings.
Robin became aware that the people were eyeing them both with none-too-friendly glances. He felt that he and Will Stuteley were in a difficult position. Escape seemed to be out of the question.
"Jump over the ledge of my box, Robin," whispered a sudden small voice, "and so make your way through the door at the back of it. Hasten!"
Gratefully Robin did as she bade him; and Stuteley, without waiting for invitation, followed. Mistress Fitzwalter instantly opened the door for them. "Hurry, I pray you," cried she; "I see them coming for you both. The Prince has sent his pikemen--"
Robin pushed Will out before him; and, turning, caught her little hand in his.
"Thanks, thanks," he muttered, hurriedly, and strove to kiss her fingers.
Laughing and blushing, she snatched them away.
"Go," she cried, in agitated voice, "and stay not until you reach Locksley. We may meet again-to talk of thanks," she added, seeing that he still hesitated.
"Give me at least your name," panted poor Robin, at the door; "not that I shall ever forget you."
"I am called Marian," answered she, closing the door ruthlessly upon him--"Marian Fitzwalter . . . . Go now, I implore you, and may good fortune be with you always."