The Demoiselle Marie was behind all this. She had known Geoffrey's plans from her lover, Master Carfax; for Master Carfax had had interviews with those two of Will's band, Roger and Micah, the traitors sworn against Geoffrey.
'Twas all wheel within wheel and plot within plot. Carfax had by nature a face made to show differently on either side of it. Thus he was in service with the Prince; and, whilst knowing the younger Montfichet to be his master's ally, affected outwardly to recognize him as one against whom the hands of all righteous men should be raised.
Master Simeon had gone forth with the Prince's message to Will o' th' Green, and with John Ford, in order that he might install that latter worthy at Locksley. Afterward Simeon was to journey to the Priory of York, as we, know. Marie Monceux, to complete Robin's undoing, bade her father go to Gamewell and there tell Montfichet how Robin had helped Geoffrey to his scarlet-ribboned horse, giving the Squire the story as it had come through the two false outlaws. Certain proof she sent in a strip of the red cloth which Montfichet well knew to belong only to his house at Gamewell.
So suddenly Montfichet's mind was poisoned against Robin; with the result that we have seen. The Squire began now to believe Ford's tale that young Fitzooth was of the outlaw band, and at once withdrew all support of Robin so far as the Rangership of Locksley was concerned. "No doubt," thought the Squire, bitterly, "he is son of his father in discontent and false pride. Fitzooth never was frank with me, and has trained his son to distrust and deceive all men."
Truly the Sheriff's daughter was exacting full penalty for Robin's disregard of her at the Nottingham Fair.
She had employed her hand also against the maid Fitzwalter, as we shall find later.
Robin, in forbidding silence, strode along the road until they neared the shrine of St. Dunstan, when he looked eagerly toward the stout little hut of the clerk, hoping to find his old friend standing at the door of it, with his barking dogs.
All was silent, however, and deserted. To Robin's surprise, the gate of the palisade stood wide open; and the door of the hut also. He glanced at Will.
"Surely the priest is abroad imprudently, Master?" said young Stuteley. "See how he has left his little house--open to the world! He must be of a very trusting nature for sure."
"I remember now that the gate was unlatched yesterday," spoke Robin, slowly. "I noticed it then and meant to talk with you on the point, Will. I hope that no evil has befallen the clerk."
"'Tis three weeks or more since we have had tidings of him," said Stuteley. "Shall we go in and make search?"
They entered the rude dwelling and soon exhausted every hole and corner of it in a vain hunt for some token of the clerk. The kennels at the back were empty and forlorn; and some bread which they found in the hermit's tiny larder was mouldy and very stale.
"Let us push on to Locksley, Will; mayhap we shall have better cheer waiting us there!"
They trudged on quietly. His master's depression had reached and overcome merry Stuteley. They began unconsciously to walk quickly and more quickly still as they approached Locksley. The day was overcast and very still.
Presently Robin, throwing back his head, sniffed the air.
"Surely there is a strange smell in these woods, Will? Does it not seem to you that there is a taste of burning grasses in the breeze?"
"Master," answered Stuteley, his face suddenly paling at some inner fear, "I do smell fire such as a blazing house would give forth. Well do I know the scent of it; having seen our own home burned last year."
"Hurry, hurry, Will; my heart misgives me. Some further disaster is
upon us. This is my evil day, I know. Hurry, for the love of me!"
They set off at a frenzied scamper through the woods, taking the short footpath which would lead them to the back of the house of Locksley. Robin broke through the trees and undergrowth and hastily scaled the fence that railed off their garden from the wild woods.
A dread sight met his starting eyes. Dull brown smoke curled from under the eaves of his home in dense clouds; the windows were gaping rounds from which ever and anon red flames gushed forth; a torrid heat was added to the sickening odor of the doomed homestead.
Somebody grasped him by the hand.
"Thanks be that you are returned, Excellence," spoke a rough voice, with emotion. "This is a sorry welcome."
"My mother?" gasped Robin, blankly, and his heart stood still for Warrenton's answer.
"Not a hair of her head has been touched. Old Warrenton would not stand here to tell you the sorry tale were it otherwise. But the house must go; 'tis too old and dry a place for mortal hand to save."
Stuteley had joined them by this, and the three gazed for a minute in stupefied silence on the flaming destruction of that home so dear to Robin Fitzooth. Warrenton, grimed and righteously angry, began his tale.
Yesterday, at dusk, the sound of a winding horn had brought them all anxiously to the garden. "We thought that you had returned with young Stuteley," said the old man-at-arms; "but we found ourselves facing none other than Master Ford the forester, with about six or more of the most insolent of his men. Peremptorily he bade us deliver up this house to him, pulling out a warrant from his bosom and waving it before your mother's face."
"Ford, was it?" questioned Robin. Then light broke in upon him. Yesterday, after the battle between Will's band and that of Master Carfax, some of the defeated foresters had fled to the north of Sherwood.
"You must bear up, young Master," said Warrenton, "the Squire will doubtless build you a new home."
"Alas, Warrenton! Master Montfichet has turned against me now," said Robin then, "and against you also. Continue your story, and you shall hear ours when you have done."
So Warrenton continued, telling them how John Ford had made an attempt to seize the place: how Warrenton and the few servants had striven to beat him back: and how, after valiant fighting, they had succeeded in keeping them from taking the house at least. The garden they could not retain; but Warrenton, having established himself at one of the upper windows, had so shrewdly flown his arrows, that Ford himself had been wounded and one of his men killed outright.
Night had fallen upon them in this way, and the dame thought that it would be a good scheme for one of her maids now to endeavor to slip out and arouse the village to their help. One of the women therefore essayed the journey; but was so clumsy as to attract the enemy's attention. She was seized and made to confess how the house was protected and where it was most likely to fall before a sharp assault. Being a witless wench, she told them truly, and Master Ford then bade her help them collect sticks and leaves in order that they might be able to fire the place as a last resource.
Those within had thought that the girl had managed to evade danger, and cheerfully waited for help from the village.
A determined attack was commenced at daybreak; and Ford and his men succeeded in gaining possession of the kitchens without loss. Another of the servants was captured, also a second maidservant was injured by an arrow, so seriously as to die within twenty minutes.
Warrenton kept the stairs and barricaded the inner door from the kitchens by putting tables and chairs against it. At length a parley was called, and Ford shouted his conditions through the keyhole. The besieged then learned that the distant village was still unaware of their peril. Ford offered to let them all go forth free, if now they would yield up the house to him.
Mistress Fitzooth had a mind to accept, but Warrenton counselled no. After a long argument Ford swore that he would burn the house over their heads if they did not surrender it within an hour; and, going back to the garden, he began to bring in the loose dry pieces of wood and sticks he and his men had collected in the night.
At three hours after noon, Ford, having given one more warning to them, had bidden his fellows do the worst. In a few moments the smell
of burning filled the house; and Mistress Fitzooth became as one distraught.
"We had two women left to us," Warrenton continued, "and a lad, who was worth as much as man to me. I bade them open the door softly, and rush forth whilst the wretches were employed at their fiendish work in the rear. This we did, and so gained, unperceived, the little shed nearby the gate. From a crack in the boards, I could command bowshot of the whole front; and I had given the lad a bow of yours. The two maids, taking your mother's hands, pulled her along under the hedge until they gained the road. Then all three ran furiously toward the village.
"We who were left behind had not long to wait. Presently, one came round to the front with a piece of flaming wood and boldly thrust it through the nearest lattice. Him I killed at once with an arrow through the back. They were now but five against us. Presently two others came stealthily from the back: but, seeing their companion dead, ran back hastily.
"Master Ford appeared next, and began to look suspiciously about him. His fellow had rolled over in his death struggles, and so might have been slain from my window in the housefront. Curls of smoke were coming up from under the thatch by now; and Ford, making up his mind, ran out with the others, and flung himself upon the door.
"We had left it latched; and so it gave enough of resistance in his blind attack to justify him in believing it was still held from within. It fell inwards, at last, with a crash; and Ford sprang triumphantly across the threshold. His fellows rushed after him, trying now to beat out the fire."
Warrenton paused, and all fell again to watching the leaping flames.
"Meanwhile I guessed that your mother was safe, and had already alarmed the villagers," continued the old retainer. "So, with a shout, I rushed out upon the villains, with the lad, and pulled the broken door back to its place, shutting them in, that they might enjoy their own fell work in all security. Two of them did attempt escape just since by leaping from out of the window. But my bow was ready strung for them."
"Have you killed four men, then, Warrenton?" said Robin, his blood running cold. Then suddenly the full meaning of it flashed upon him. "And Ford?" he cried, with a gesture of horror, "and the two others?"
"Nay," said Warrenton, grimly. "I had come round here to see whether they had preference for fire or for my arrows, having left the boy to guard the front. Then I saw you and young Stuteley, and in my chattering I had nigh come to forget them. But there is Master Ford beckoning to us from your own room."
A frenzied, dreadful figure had indeed appeared for a brief instant amongst the thick curling smoke. It waved two hopeless hands out towards the falling dusk, and then incontinently vanished.
A thin scream sounded in Robin's ears, as a rush of flame mercifully swallowed up this apparition: like as not, 'twas the sound of the fire itself. The end had come, both to the unhappy foresters and Robin's home. With a huge torrent of noise the roof of it crushed in, half-stiffing the fire.
Then the flames seized full mastery; and amid a shower of sparks, the red tongues licked and devoured the last of their prey.
* * *
Robin hastened to find his mother, that he might be relieved of his anxiety and be rid for the moment of the sight of the awful catastrophe of the fire. Warrenton and Stuteley rushed in together, at his command, to try to save the two remaining foresters; but it was a very forlorn hope. Warrenton in his just revenge had pushed things to their extreme limits: Master Ford and all his band had paid the utmost penalty of their failure to overcome this relentless old man.
Mistress Fitzooth had secured refuge and was now much calmer. She embraced her son and wept over him in joy at this reunion. Robin could see, however, that she was indeed much overwrought by these troubles. She had not yet recovered from the loss of her husband.
They stayed with these poor people, who found room for them somehow, out of sheer charity, for neither Robin nor the dame had any money. It was a bitter business, in sooth: and next day Robin, finding his mother far from well, humbled himself to beg assistance from the Squire. He despatched the letter by Warrenton, and then patiently set himself to wait a reply.
Also, he determined to seek an audience with the Prince. His home had been burned, his small patrimony gone: he had now no means of keeping himself and the dame from starvation save by living on another man's bread.
The clerk, his one tried friend, was gone--no one knew where.
The Prince would surely yield him the right to be Ranger at Locksley in his father's place! The house had been given to dead Hugh Fitzooth by Henry, the King.
An uneasy feeling took possession of Robin, for Warrenton had defied and overcome the Sheriff's man when he had been properly empowered to expel mother and son from Locksley, and there were seven dead men, nay, eight, to be accounted for--and they were all of them King's Foresters.
* * *
Montfichet answered him by sending a purse of money and a curt letter saying that Mistress Fitzooth was to come to Gamewell, where for the rest of her days she would always find a home. For Robin he could do nothing: already the Sheriff had drawn up a proclamation of outlawry against him, setting the price of a hundred crowns upon him, living or dead.