AFTER THE ADVENTURE with the good Bishop, Robin and his men waited in some trepidation for a sign from Nottingham.
However, several weeks passed without any untoward incident.
The fourth week after my lord of Hereford's despoilment a quarrel broke out betwixt Stuteley and Little John; and these two hotheaded fellows must needs get from words to blows.
In the bouts of fencing and wrestling Little John could hold his own with all; but at quarterstaff Stuteley could, and did, rap the giant's body very shrewdly. After one bout both lost their temper: and Robin had to stay them by ordering Stuteley to cease the play.
This was in the forenoon. Later on, chance threw Little John and Stuteley into a fresh dispute. It happened just before dusk; the two of them from different parts of the wood had stalked and run to earth the same stag. Little John had already drawn his bow when Stuteley espied him. At once the little esquire called out that no one had the right to shoot such a deer but Robin of Locksley, his master. Little John scoffed at this, and flew his arrow; but between them they had startled the stag and it bounded away. Little John was furious with Stuteley, and the noise of their quarrelling brought Robin again between them. This time young Robin spoke his mind to Little John, saying that he was sorry that Master John Little Nailor had ever come into their free band.
"'Tis not free at all! " cried Little John, raging. "'Tis the most galling of service. Here I may not do this nor that. I'll stay no more in Barnesdale, but try my fortunes with your foes."
He flung himself away from them, and when the roll was called that night, the name of Little John evoked no response.
Robin was vexed at this, and saw that they must come to some agreement if they would keep the company alive. He talked with Warrenton and Much and some of the others, and they all pressed him to assume the captaincy by right of his skill with the bow. They decided between them to have a full council on the morrow and come to a decision: for without a captain they were as a ship without a rudder.
The early morning found Robin walking thoughtfully in the greenwood. He hoped that he might discover Little John returning to them, repentant. He had taken a strange liking to this great giant of a man.
As he walked, he drew insensibly toward the highroad; but had not nearly reached it when he came upon a herd of deer feeding peacefully in a glade. Robin got his bow ready. Before he could fit a shaft to it, however, one of the finest beasts fell suddenly, pierced by a clever arrow.
Immediately he thought that Little John had indeed returned; and was about to emerge from his hiding place, when a handsome little page ran gleefully towards the dying buck from the other side of the glade. This was plainly the archer; and Robin, after a swift glance of surprise, moved out upon him. "How dare you shoot the King's beasts, stripling?" asked Robin, very severely.
"I have as much right to shoot them as the King himself," answered the page, haughtily, and by no means afraid. "And who are you who dares to question me?"
His voice stirred Robin strangely; yet he could fit no memory properly to it. The lad was very handsome, slim, dark-haired, and with regular features.
"My name is my own," said Robin to him, "and I do not like your answering of a plain question. Keep a civil tongue in your head, boy, or you will one day be whipped."
"Not by you, forester," cried the page, pulling out a little sword. "Put up your hands, or draw your weapon. You shall have such answering now as you can understand."
He flourished his point valiantly; and Robin saw nothing for it but to draw also. The page thereupon engaged him quite fiercely; but Robin
soon perceived that the lad was no great master of the art of fencing.
Still, he played prettily, and to end it Robin allowed himself to be pricked on the hand. "Are you satisfied, fellow?" said the page, seeing the blood rise to the wound.
"Ay, honestly," said Robin, "and now, perhaps, you will grant me the privilege of knowing to whom I owe this scratch?"
"I am Gilbert of Blois," replied the page, with dignity; and again his voice troubled Robin sorely. He was certain that he had met with it before; but this name was strange to his ears.
"What do you in the greenwood at such an hour, good Master Gilbert?"
The lad considered his answer, whilst wiping his sword daintily with a pretty kerchief. The action brought a dim confused memory to Robin--a blurred recollection of that scene discovered in the wizard's crystal troubled his thoughts. Meanwhile the little page had condescended to glance upon him.
"Forester," said he, somewhat awkwardly, "can you tell me--do you know aught of one Robin o' th' Hood? He is believed to have been killed in the fall o' last year, and truly they brought a body into Nottingham. He was a merry youth."
"This is brother to my Marian!" cried Robin, inwardly. "Ay, for sure, 'tis the lad Fitzwalter, and no Gilbert of Blois. Yet Warrenton did not tell me that there was a brother."
He replied to the page. "Did not this fellow, this Robin, have other name? Robin o' th' Hood--why, all of them wear their capes and hoods nowadays--how can such a man as I know him whom you seek, to say whether he be dead or alive?"
"Forester, he was much like to you; but he had no beard, nor was he quite so uncouth as you. I mean no offence. I saw him but twice; but he seemed a lovable fellow. I remember that some called him Robin of Locksley."
"I knew him right well," said Robin, in decided tones. "Come with me, Master Gilbert, and you shall hear of him."
"He lives, then?" The page's blue eyes glistened happily.
"Did your--sister send you, Master Gilbert?" asked Robin, with his heart in his mouth.
The boy gave him a puzzled stare. "My sister--who told you that I had a sister?" Then, changing his policy with swift intuition: "Ay, my sister did send me to find the man. Bring me to him."
"Follow me, Master Gilbert of Blois," cried Robin. So Marian had remembered him. It was a happy morning, indeed!
"This poor stag," began the page, pointing to it. "I wish now that I had not slain it."
"'Tis one of the King's deer," observed Robin, grave again, "and you may be hanged for the killing of it. What put so desperate a business into your mind, friend?"
"I--to tell truth, had a notion to be made outlaw, like--like unto Master Robin, in short," said the page. "But I did not know that they might hang me for't." He made a grimace.
Robin went up to the beast and drew out the boy's arrow. Then he stuck one of his own peacocked shafts into the wound. "Now you are safe, Gilbert," said he, smiling. "Take the arrow, and keep it in your quiver until we can dispose of it. I leave my mark upon the buck--my fellows will find and deal with it."
They walked together into Barnesdale, and Robin showed the boy their hiding place and presented him to the rest. He asked that he might become one of their company, and all agreed. So he took the vow fervently, and was given Little John's place for the nonce.
Robin asked them not to mention him by name, wishing to know more of Master Gilbert's plans ere disclosing himself. The boy was full of chatter, and had news for them, too. He gave them the sequel to the Bishop's adventure, and told how my lord of Hereford had come into Nottingham in parlous state--more dead than alive: how he had lain prostrate upon a sickbed in the Sheriff's house for the best part of three days: how, having briefly recovered, he had made a full statement of his experiences, and had cursed the greenwood men with bell, book, and candle: how he had sworn that he they thought to be dead--Robin of Locksley--was very much alive and full of wickedness.
"Master Monceux, whom I have no cause to love," continued Gilbert, in quick speech, "has bidden his archers and men to assemble, and has promised a round sum for the head of each greenwood man, such as I perceive you all to be, and since I am now of your company,
friends, I suppose my head is worth as much as Master Robin's or any of yours? Which of you is Robin o' th' Hood? I fain would look upon a man who can recover from death so valiantly."
Berry and Much were, both together, preparing to point to Robin, forgetting their promise. Robin gave them a quick glance of warning. "Come, friends, let us to breakfast," he cried, rising. "I am sharp set, and soon we shall be hearing from the Sheriff's men, no doubt. Let us fortify ourselves withal."
All that morning went by, however, without further event. The greenwood men became uneasy. All felt that some terrible plot was being hatched against them, and their unrest grew with the day. Had Little John turned traitor? And was he now preparing their enemies?
Soon after noon Robin called them together into the biggest of their caves. He offered to disguise himself and go into Nottingham--there to learn the best or worst.
Many of them made objection to this, saying that one had no reason to take more risk than another in this free company. Robin persuaded them at last to his own way of thinking, as he had already done before. Unconsciously they were coming to regard him as their head, although any one of them would have fiercely denied this in open council. Robin took a staff, and hurried towards the highroad for the second time that day.
He had another reason for making this adventure: the fond hope of seeing Mistress Marian. Her brother--for so he felt sure this young Gilbert must be--had stirred afresh in Robin's heart all his warm love for her. He wondered what he could say to her.
Why, he could tell her of Gilbert's escapade! Of course she must be trembling at this very moment for the boy and thinking him in a thousand dangers! It was another duty added to that which Robin bore towards the company of freemen. He doubled and trebled his pace.
Suddenly, as he came upon the road, the sound of a lusty singing struck upon his ears. Robin became aware of a shabby cart and a bushy figure leading a bony horse, and the smell of fresh-killed meat. It was an honest butcher on his way to market in Nottingham.
"Give you good day, friend," called Robin to him. "You have a fair load there--what is your price for it?"
"Why, truly, beggar, a bigger price than you will pay, I fear," answered the butcher, in the middle of his song.
"I will give you four pieces of gold for it," said Robin.
The butcher stopped his thin horse at once. "Take the reins then, Master," cried he, joyfully; "the cart and all is yours for the sum! Pay it to me, and I will go back into Locksley forthwith."
"Do you come from that village, friend?" asked Robin, as he paid over the gold, "and are you not afraid to ride through Sherwood alone?"
"You are strange to this country, friend," answered the jolly butcher, "else you would know that now our Sherwood is free as air to all men. The outlaws and wicked ones have all been driven out of it."
"Is this indeed so? Truly I am rejoiced at the news. And Locksley--is not the Ranger there now dead, and his house burned? I do misremember his name."
"Master Fitzooth is dead and lieth in Locksley ground. Also his, son, wild Robin, is no more. He gave himself early to the outlaw band, and was slain. We have a new Ranger at Locksley, one Adam of Kirklees, a worthy man and a generous. I thank you for your gold: now take my load and may fortune befriend you."
"God rest you, butcher," answered Robin, laughing, as the other turned on his heel and began his song once more. "Stay--stay--I have a thought," he called out after the butcher. "How can I sell meat in this garb?"
The other paused and scratched his head doubtfully.
"I'll give you another piece for your clothes, friend," said Robin, persuasively. "Is it a bargain?"
"I'll do it for another piece," said the butcher. "Ay, and think myself fortunate. This is a very happy day, for sure. Strip yourself, beggar; and you can hand your purse over to me with the rags if you care to!"
Robin laughed again and shook his head. The change was soon effected, and within ten minutes he was leading his spavined horse toward the gates of Nottingham. In the distance he could hear the butcher's loud song losing itself in the forest sounds.
He smeared his face with grease and earth and rubbed his hair awry ere daring to enter the city. Boldly he led his shuffling horse to the
market and there took up his place. He had no notion of the price to ask, and the folk, finding him so foolish and easy a man, soon began to crowd about the cart.
Robin gave as much for a penny as the other butchers did for five or six when his customer was poor. If he seemed to be a prosperous citizen who would buy, Robin had quite another price for him.
The butchers about him could not quite understand these novel methods; but they saw with envy that the harebrained fellow was selling all his meat. His loud voice and foolish gestures made them think him some crazy loon who had slipped of with his good man's cart. They entered into conversation with him, and found his witless speech most entertaining.
They had all been bidden to a supper in the Sheriff's buttery that night, this being holiday time; and they begged Robin to join with them, hoping to have no little amusement from him. With a vacant stare he agreed to eat the Sheriff's mutton.
All the time he had sharp eyes and long ears; but could find out nothing of the Sheriff's plans, nor happen on sight of Mistress Fitzwalter. When they were sitting down to the supper in Monceux's buttery he perceived towering high amongst the Sheriff's servants the figure of Master Little John.
"So, friend, my visit here has not been vain," thought Robin, grimly. "Now we shall see and hear things, no doubt. " He settled himself to an attack upon the viands, and played his part with the Sheriff's ale, not forgetting to keep up the attitude of foolishness he had adopted in the market.
The laughter grew long and loud, and presently the Sheriff himself came down. He made them a speech and gave a toast. My lord of Hereford, looking very pale and limp, also came into the buttery for a space and made them a Latin grace.
Then Monceux told them, with bristling eyebrows, how he had been instructed by the Bishop of Hereford that the pestilent evil bands whose power had once been broken had re-formed in Sherwood. The Sheriff restated the reward to be given for the head of any malefactor and disturber of their laws, as ordered by Prince John; and said further that
in a few days he was going to despatch his men into and about the forest to satisfy the Bishop. "Whilst I am preparing my fellows, there is a chance for all honest citizens and burgesses to earn a fair sum. My lord of Hereford will add his reward to the man who shall recover his money to him, or part of it; and I will give such man freedom from all taxes and levies," added the Sheriff, importantly.
Robin wondered whether Little John had spoken of the company. While he was eyeing darkly the burly figure of Master Nailor, the latter came over to him under a pretence of filling Robin's glass.
"By my skin, Locksley," whispered the giant into his startled ear, "this is a foolish adventure! Your head is as good as off your shoulders in this place. Hasten to leave it soon as you can, for fear the Bishop may know you as I have done."
Robin only stared in his new half-vacant manner. Little John moved away to another part of the room. Hard questions formed themselves in Robin's mind--how had Little John known him? Stranger still, why did not my lord of Hereford recognize Master John Little Nailor? He had been foremost in the business with the Bishop. Robin recollected, all at once, that when the Bishop had briefly come in to bless the supper, Little John had gone out hurriedly with some dishes.
That was it, no doubt; but a mystery still remained. Robin decided to pierce it ere the night was done. Some of the guests were far gone in their cups already; and Monceux had given over the buttery to the butchers for the night. "I'll stay here then," decided Robin; and, pretending to be suddenly overcome by the strong ale, he tumbled himself down upon the rush-strewn floor.
He set up a great snoring, until Little John, taking him by the heels, dragged him through the kitchen into a little larder.. and there shut the door on him. "Lie there, nasty pig," cried Little John from outside with disgusted air, for his fellow servants to note. "Lie there in a clean sty for once; and if you grunt again I will surely souse you under the pump!" At this threat Robin's snores abated somewhat in their violence.
"I would drop him into the river forthwith," spoke a harsh voice, startling Robin into fierce astonishment. There was no mistaking those tones: so cruel, so false, so malicious. "Roger and Micah-Micah and Roger. " One of these two villains it was of a surety! But Robin had
seen them both slain on the day of that battle wherein poor Will of Cloudesley had perished.
Trembling with amazement, he cautiously got upon his knees and peeped through the keyhole. In the flagged kitchen, amidst the reek of hot foods and disordered dishes, were two men--one of them Little John. The other was dressed as a cook, and as he turned his face towards the light of the fire Robin knew him for one of the two traitor outlaws. He had changed little.
Little John answered his remark over his shoulder: "You would do many a rash thing, Roger, if you could," was all he said; but he spoke in sneering tone.
"Ay, marry; and one thing I would do, right instantly, dear gossip," said Roger, busying himself with the dishes. Robin saw that they shone like gold in the ruddy light of the fire. "I would not have you as helpmate in this kitchen had I the ordering of matters. Big hands and heavy hands and thieving hands. Ah, I need not be wizard to know them when I see them!"
"You shall feel them, little Roger," said Little John, very angry. And he soundly cuffed the cook about the head. Roger snarlingly drew back and snatched up a dish. Full viciously he flung it at Little John, and after it another and another.
The first struck the giant's shoulder and fell clattering upon the red tiles. The second dish struck Little John as he recoiled and cut his forehead and head. Blood ran down instantly over his cheek. The third smashed itself against the wall harmlessly. Drawing in his breath, Little John commenced a long chase of his foe, who had raced off to the other side of the table.
Neither man spoke, but each eyed the other warily. Anger shone on one face, jealous hate upon the other. They moved round and round the table carefully.
There were knives in plenty upon it; and every now and again Roger would seize one and fling it hurriedly at his enemy. Little John ruthlessly followed him, without flinching or abating his set purpose by one jot.
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. The noise was awful; then suddenly ceased--for Little
John had grasped his prey by the short skirt of his tunic. In another second of time Roger was secured, fluttering, cursing, and green with a sick terror.
Little John lifted him up bodily and flung him with all his strength against the wall of the kitchen. He rebounded from the wall to the dresser; and in convulsive agony gripped hold of those utensils near him. All fell, with reverberations of sound, downward with him to the ground. There Roger lay still--save for a slight and hideous twitching of his mouth.
Little John opened the door to Robin. "Hasten--hasten away from here, soon as you can. There is danger and death."
"I shall escape. I have a story for them." Little John suddenly pushed Robin back into the larder. "'Tis too late: be silent on your life."
Some servants, alarmed by the din, entered. They found Little John, the new kitchen drawer, bending in consternation over the lifeless form of the cook. "Run, run," cried he, scarce glancing at them. "Here is Roger the cook suddenly dying. His brain has given way. See how the foam flecks upon his lips. Get me water for him. Or stay, help me carry him to his bed."
Little John picked him up tenderly and with a face full of seeming concern. The others, aghast at the mere thought of touching a madman, shrank back. The giant carried the unconscious Roger out of the kitchen.
The servants came and busied themselves in restoring the kitchen to order. One of them opened the larder; but Robin had laid himself full length upon the top shelf. So he was not discovered.
The night wore on and most of the servants went yawningly to bed. Little John returned, telling the few who remained that the cook was recovered from his fit; but was still delirious and unsafe. "I will bank the fire and sleep here, so that I may be able to go to him," continued Little John, with a kind air. "By my wits, but he did mightily scare me when first the distemper showed in him. He sliced me with the spit. See how my head is cut, and my cheek shows you how his horrid teeth did meet in my flesh."
"Did he indeed bite you, Master Nailor?"
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At last he made a dart upon Roger and the chase grew furious. Dishes, plates, covers, pots and pans--all went flying.
"By my, bones, he bit and tore me like a wild beast. But since I am so big and not fearful of him I will e'en watch him through the night, unless you choose to do service, Mickleham?"
Mickleham swore roundly that he would not.
"Then get you gone, gossip," said the giant, busying himself with the fire. "'Tis late; and my lord of Hereford has business abroad at an early hour."
He bade Robin go back into the buttery and stay there until dawn, there being no chance of escape out of the castle at this hour. "Play your part, Locksley, and avoid the Bishop's eyes--even as have I. We may meet on the morrow."
"You have not betrayed us, Little John?"
"Roger the cook was to have sold you. Therefore have I quietened him for the nonce. Here's my hand on it, Locksley: that Little John is loyal. But I do not love Stuteley yet."
"It will come in time," answered Robin, sleepily. "You are both sound fellows. Give you good night, honest John. I'll sleep none the worse for my pillow." He stretched himself amid the trampled rushes of the buttery, and laid his head upon the prone body of one of the sleeping butchers. Full a dozen of them had fallen into slumber to the Sheriff's rush-bottomed buttery floor.
Little John went back to the kitchen and there carefully and silently collected Master Monceux's gold plate. He put it all into a stout sack, tied it up, and waited patiently for dawn.