Master Carfax had by this time arrived in Nottingham, all eager to marry his cold bride. He found, however, that this was a happiness not yet to be, for matters were in a grievous state in the Sheriff's household.
My lord of Hereford was very wroth with them all, and had sent Monceux back to his native city with much to think upon. The Bishop had taken the opportunity of laying formal complaint at Court before the King; and his Majesty had told Master Monceux that when he went back to Nottingham it must be to keep the Royal forest free of all evildoers. Otherwise a new Sheriff would be found for Nottingham, and that right soon.
Henry, the King, was near to his own end, and had become very irritable in consequence of his illness. His sons tried his scanty patience sorely with their waywardness and their ingratitude. So Monceux had none too pleasant a reception at Court, and returned therefrom with a heavy heart.
Simeon Carfax was therefore despatched into Sherwood to find the tinker, so that Middle might be whipped and put into the stocks for having failed, also Carfax was to secure Robin and the ringleaders at all hazard. To this end Master Simeon was given command of the Sheriff's own men-at-arms, and a great body of citizens from the town wards, each man having the promise of a large reward and freedom thenceforth from all taxes.
The news soon came to Robin, and he and his men retired at once into the innermost parts of Barnesdale, and secured their caves by
covering the mouths of them with barricades artfully concealed behind green boughs and the like.
So Carfax and his fellows searched without avail for near three weeks, only occasionally having evidence of the greenwood men by finding the feet and antlers of the King's deer lying here and there in the forest. The Sheriff's men laid many traps for Robin, but all in vain.
Stuteley, being of venturesome mind, must needs attempt all manner of tricks upon this motley company of soldiers. He would dig a pit with Little John and Much, and hide it up with branches and earth, so that Master Carfax might stray into it and haply break his neck.
At last Carfax bethought him of a good plot. He had nigh fallen into one of Will Stuteley's pits, but suddenly stayed his men from demolishing it. He planned instead to pretend to be trapped in the pit that very night; and, having hidden his fellows all round about, he walked out boldly at dusk with but three of them, and fell a-talking loudly of his schemes for capturing Robin Hood.
He walked carelessly up to the hidden pit and with great outcry fell into it, the others with him running off then as if in deadly alarm. Then Master Carfax began a loud lament, and made such a noise that Stuteley must hear it.
Young Will came bounding joyfully to the pit's edge, and, spying Carfax therein, fell into an ecstasy of delight. He railed at Simeon very pleasantly, and made merry at the other's supposed mishap. But presently Carfax blew his horn, and shortly Stuteley found the position reversed. After a desperate struggle he was overpowered and carried off, although not without being seen by another of Robin's men. This man brought Robin the bad news within an hour of Will Stuteley's capture.
The greenwood men flung prudence to the winds and sallied forth. They pursued and came up with the rear guard of the enemy, and a terrible battle was fought. Thirteen of Robin's brave fellows were wounded, five of them so grievously as to die soon afterward of their wounds, and as many of the Nottingham soldiery also were slain.
Carfax returned to Nottingham, however--this time in some triumph. His men had beaten back the outlaws, and he had secured the lieutenant of the band, a "desperate villain, next to Robin Hood himself in deeds of violence and disorder."
So all agreed; and by dint and hard swearing soon wove a noose to fit Will Stuteley's thin neck. Monceux, in grave satisfaction, ordered that their prisoner should be hanged and quartered, within a week, in the streets of Nottingham, as a warning and example to all wrongdoers.
The Sheriff gave a feast to all the soldiery and doubled the reward upon Robin's head. Until he was caught Monceux: could but remain uneasy, for Henry of England was a man of his word.
Robin was sorely grieved at the loss of Stuteley, and swore that he would save his little squire or die. He went, therefore, to Gamewell to discover from Marian precisely how they had arranged for the hanging of Stuteley, for she was able to go into Nottingham in her page's dress.
Marian had learned it all. "First, he will be tortured to tell the secret of your hiding place, dear heart," she told Robin, in bated breath. "Then he will suffer the full penalty, and will be hanged from a gallows with three other poor wretches. Last of all he is to be quartered, and his body flung to the people."
She burst into weeping, and sobbed so grievously that Robin was hard put to it to keep back his own tears. "Did you learn who these others might be?" he asked her, to change her thoughts and to satisfy himself that no other friend was with little Will.
"They are the three sons of a poor widow, who lives in the forest. They found the body of one of the deer, and, being very hungry, were carrying it from the forest to their little home. Someone, passing by, accused them of having first killed it, and this quarrel came to the Sheriff's ears. Master Carfax then affected to recognize them as being three greenwood men; and they have been tried summarily and found guilty, and will be hanged together with Will."
"I swear that this shall not be," cried Robin, in heat, "since no doubt I am to blame for leaving the slain deer in their way."
"It was, I believe, the very stag that I did kill," said Marian, in a troubled voice. "They have been in prison for near a month; and the beast was found outside part of the woods. Shall I not go and give myself up in their place? Since I have had this dreadful guilty thought in my mind I have known no moment's peace; but, coward-like, I do not dare to be honest with myself."
"Be of good courage, dear maid," said Robin. "We have killed many
of the King's deer since the day I first did meet with Master Gilbert of Blois. For we are hungry every day, prithee, and the beasts are many. Also in this season they are very wild and ferocious--'tis like this one was killed in a battle royal between itself and another stag. But to make all sure, we will rescue the widow's three sons with my Stuteley from the Sheriff's foul clutches."
"Go not into danger, dear heart, for my sake," Marian pleaded, and she held him close to her as though she never would let him depart again.
* * *
Robin went back to his men, and they made their plans. Little John was given the second place of command, and it was agreed that upon the morning on which Stuteley and the others were to be hanged the greenwood men should risk all by marching into Nottingham to the rescue.
The dawn of this eventful morning broke bright and sunny. Robin was clothed in a gay scarlet dress and his men wore their mantles of Lincoln-green cloth. They were armed with broadswords, and each carried a full quiver of new arrows, fashioned for them during the past winter by the cunning hands of Warrenton.
They marched boldly towards Nottingham, leaving Allan-a-Dale with his little dame and six of the outlaws to keep house for them, as it were. When they were within a mile of Nottingham gates, Robin called a halt, and said: "I hold it good, comrades, that we stay here in hiding, and send forth someone to hear the news. There comes upon the road a palmer--see you him nearby the gates? Who will go forth and engage him in talk?"
"I will," said Midge, at once; "for I am used to deal with holy men."
So Midge went out from them, whilst they all hid themselves and waited. When he was close to the palmer, Midge said, amiably: "I pray you, old palmer, tell me if you know where and when these robbers are to die? Doubtless you have passed the very spot?"
"That have I, indeed," answered the palmer, sadly, "and 'tis a sorry sight to see. By the Sheriff's castle, out upon the roadway, they have built an angled gallows tree to bear the four of them at once. They are
to die at noon, after the torturing is done. I cannot bear the sight; and so have turned my back upon it."
The palmer spoke in a muffled voice; and as his hood had been pulled well over his head, Midge could not see what manner of man he might exactly be. He carried his long stick with its little cross at the top; and had sandalled feet, like any monk. Midge noticed idly how small his feet were for a man of his size, but gave no second thought to the matter.
"Who will shrive these poor fellows, then, if you have turned your back upon them?" asked Midge, reproachfully. This seemed to present itself as a new idea to the palmer.
"Do you think, friend," he inquired, in a troubled way, "that I should undertake the office?"
"By Saint Peter and Saint Mary, I do indeed," cried Midge, roundly. "Would you leave them to the empty prayers which the Sheriff's chaplain will pour coldly over them? Nay, in sooth, if your heart be turned to sympathy, surely you are the man to administer this last consolation to these poor fellows."
"If it might be permitted I would dearly love to shrive them," said the palmer, still hesitating. "But I am only a poor palmer."
"Keep close to me," Midge told him, valiantly, "and you shall shrive these good fellows an it become necessary. That I promise you."
He returned to Robin and told him that the execution had been fixed to take place outside Nottingham Castle at noon. "We must hasten then," said Robin. "Go you first, Little John; and we will tread close upon your heels."
Little John swam the moat, and sprang upon the warder of the city gates suddenly, whilst he was craning his neck to get a view of the Sheriff's procession of death. The big outlaw seized his victim from behind, and clapped his great hand over his mouth. Very soon the warder was prisoner in the round tower by the gate; and Little John had slipped himself into his uniform.
Little John then lowered the bridge quietly, and passed the rest of them into Nottingham. Midge and the palmer came last of all. "Now spread yourselves about into groups of twos and threes," said Robin, "and have your swords ready when you hear my horn. Little John,
prithee draw the bridge again, so that none may suspect us; but leave the winch loose, for we may have to use it hastily. Go you first, and Heaven speed thee."
Will Stuteley at length came out of the castle surrounded by the Sheriff's guards; and behind him walked dejectedly the widow's three sons. Poor Will looked ghastly pale, and marks of the torturings showed upon his skin. His face was drawn and lined with anguish.
Monceux was there, dressed out in his best; and was blowing out his fat cheeks in vast self-importance. Beside the Sheriff was Master Carfax, lean-faced as ever. They were mounted on white horses; and behind them were two score of archers and pikemen.
Stuteley, seeing that no help appeared at hand, asked, in a weak voice, that he might have words with the Sheriff.
Monceux went up to him and bade him speak out.
Stuteley said, in a sad tone: "Sheriff, seeing that I must die today, grant me this one boon, that I may not be hanged upon a gallows tree, but rather that I die with my sword in my hand, fighting you and all your men to the last."
The Sheriff laughed coarsely: "Not so, my man; you shall die instead a shameful death, and after you your master, Robin Hood, that false butcher, so soon as I have him fast."
"That you will never do," answered Stuteley, with prophecy, in his weak voice. "But unbind my hands, Sheriff, for your soul's sake, and let me meet my end valiantly."
"To the gallows with him!" roared Monceux, giving the sign to the executioner, and Stuteley was hustled into the rude cart which was to bear him under the gallows until his neck had been leashed. Then it would be drawn roughly away and the unhappy man would swing out over the tail of it into another world.
Two fellows had great knives with them ready to cut him down, and quarter his body whilst life was in it, as the cruel sentence had ordained.
"Let me, at the least, shrive this man's soul ere it be hurled into eternity," said the palmer, stepping toward.
Monceux's face grew black with rage; and yet he scarcely liked to refuse, for fear it should injure him too much in the eyes of the people. "Perform the duty quickly then, Sir Priest," he snarled; and then rode
back to Carfax. "Watch the palmer narrowly," he told him, "and do you secure him afterwards. Methinks he is some ally of these rascal outlaws; and, in any case, we shall do no harm in questioning him."
The palmer had hardly begun to string his beads when Little John commenced to elbow a path for himself through the crowd. He roughly thrust the soldiers aside as if they had been so many children, and came up to the edge of the cart. "I pray you, Will, take leave of your true friend here before you die," cried Little John.
The palmer had fallen back at his approach; and stood in some hesitancy. In a moment Monceux saw what happened. "Seize that man!" he shouted to his pikemen. "He is that villain who did rob us of our gold plate, who nearly slew Roger, our cook. He is of the band--seize him; and he too shall hang!"
"Not so fast, gossip," Little John answered, with an ugly look; "I must needs borrow my friend of you for a while."
He had cut Stuteley's bands with two quick strokes of his dagger, and having wrenched a pike from out of one of the soldiers' hands, flung it to little Will. "Now, by my freedom, here's your prayer answered, comrade," cried Little John. "I have found you a weapon--do your best with it!"
The soldiers had recovered from their temporary surprise and flung themselves upon the prisoner and his would-be rescuer. Robin, from the back of the Sheriff's bowmen, sounded his horn, and instantly all became confusion and riot. In the mêlée the palmer sought to slip away unnoticed, but was detected by the keen eyes of Carfax. Master Simeon rode round with six of his fellows and caused them to seize the holy man, and bind him fast with leathern thongs.
But this small success was more than outweighed by the reverse suffered by Monceux and his men. Taken in assault at the rear, they had no chance with the greenwood men. Robin himself had released the widow's three sons, and they had not been slow in arming themselves. Some of those in the crowd, having secret sympathy with the outlaws and hating the Sheriff heartily for many small injustices, also flung themselves into the fray.
The greenwood men cleared the green square before the Sheriff's home by repeated rushes and desperate chargings. Broken heads and
cut knees there were in plenty; and lucky the man who escaped with so little as these. Carfax won a place of safety for Master Monceux, and fell back slowly, with him the unwilling palmer, until shelter of the castle gates had been attained. Then the soldiers and pikemen grew very valiant, and shot out clouds of arrows, through the loopholes in the castle towers, upon townsmen and rioters alike.
Half a score of men were killed ere this day was ended, amongst them being that very apprentice who had wrestled on the day of Nottingham Fair with little Stuteley, the tumbler, for Squire o' th' Hall's purse. Robin had an arrow through his hand, and nigh broke the shaft in pulling it out.
The greenwood men, well satisfied with the day's work, commenced an orderly retreat. Little John lowered the bridge for them, when they reached the city gates, and all fell back into Sherwood in good style. Stuteley had been rescued, and walked joyfully by the side of his master. Next to him was Little John, and near him the widow's three sons. They had already asked for and obtained permission to take up a free life in the woods of Sherwood.
Two of the band had been killed by the murderous arrows of the Sheriff's fellows, and most of the outlaws bore wounds of some sort. Yet they were not cast down. Sorrow sat upon them for the loss of those two brave hearts, but for their own hurts they cared naught. The bodies of their comrades were being carried with them into the free and happy woods, and there should find rest.
"Tell me, Midge," said Robin, presently, and looking round for him, "what did become of the palmer who was so wishing to be of service to our Stuteley? He seemed a likeable old man, and I would not that we should seem ungrateful."
"I much fear me that Monceux's fellows did capture him, the same who bore off thee, Will," said Midge. "But they will scarcely do him hurt, being a holy man."
"I have no trust in either of them," Robin answered, vexed, "and I am grievously angry with you, Midge, for keeping this news to yourself. The palmer must be recovered from Monceux, and at once. I will bethink me upon some plan to this end."
They walked on in silence. After a while, "I ne'er thought, Master,"
said Stuteley, brokenly, "that I should see these woods again--nor meet Little John, either in quarrel or in friendship, nor see any of your dear faces again."
"By my crown, which is the hardest part of me," Little John cried, "I swear that in future you shall meet me how you will, gossip. Here's my hand on it."
Thus began the great friendship between these two, which was to last them all their days. Robin was glad enough of it; but the doubtful fate of the palmer still troubled him sorely. If he had known then that bitter truth which he was to learn very shortly he would have ridden back forthwith into Nottingham town, there to end this story at once. Life had, however, many years and queer twists in it yet for Robin Hood of Barnesdale.