The time of Nottingham Fair had come round once more, and again the Sheriff would give a prize. Monceux determined to make the prize a good one, such as might tempt any archer. He hoped thus that Robin might be lured into Nottingham.
He smiled to himself in grim satisfaction, and rubbed his hands softly together. To tell truth, he had been expecting Robin any moment during these last ten days, and had wondered why he had not come. The palmer should have proved a bait in himself, so the Sheriff imagined.
But Robin only learned on the eve of the Fair the whole truth about that holy man.
It was in this way. For ten nights had Robin waited at the trysting place for sight of Marian; and had waited in vain.
At last doubt grew into suspicion, and suspicion into fierce terror. Had Marian been abducted by Monceux, and did the Squire fear to tell him?
On the night before the Fair he took courage and marched up to the castle entrance, then wound his horn for the bridge to be lowered. Now, if Monceux could but have known, Robin would have been easy prey.
He rushed across the bridge soon as it had fallen, clangingly, upon the buttresses. The same old servant met him at the gates, holding it open just a little way so that he might peer forth. Robin pulled his cloak about himself.
"I would see Master Montfichet, and at once," he began.
"My master is in London," replied the man, eyeing him.
"Did he journey alone? Did not Mistress Fitzwalter go with him? When did they go?"
Robin's questions came all of a rush. "My master hath been gone near two weeks. He went alone from here. But tell me who you are, clamoring so noisily with your questioning?"
"I am Robin Hood," said Robin, in desperation, "and now, for the love of Heaven, give me news of Mistress Fitzwalter."
"She left here on the day after my lord's departure."
"Hath left Gamewell?" Robin gasped. "How? In what way?"
The man sniggered. "To tell truth, Excellence, she did leave us in strange guise. I have pondered more than ever upon the ways of women since the day. Mistress would have our maids make her a monk's gown, and I was bid to fashion her a staff such as these palmers carry in their hands. Then with sandalled feet--"
"Did she go forth from here upon the day of the rioting in Nottingham, when Stuteley and the others escaped?"
"It was upon the morning of that day," the man replied; "and I promise you, we have not seen her since."
Robin turned abruptly from him. Next minute he was running blindly under the night towards the city gates.
* * *
The Sheriff's prize had been announced far and wide. For the best archer there was an Arab horse, coal-black and worth a bag of gold, and with the horse there would be a saddle of silver and fine leather. Also a silk purse, worked by the demoiselle Marie, containing a hundred pieces.
There were other rewards for the quarterstaff and singlestick, but this year there would be no tourney.
It was a fête day, and folk crowded into Nottingham by all gates. These had been lowered hospitably and were to remain down all day. The stages had been erected for quarterstaff.
There was a fellow, one Nat of Nottingham, who was believed to be the finest player at the game for many miles around. Several had tried their skill with Nat, but he had soon knocked every man of them off the stage rudely to the ground. He began boasting then of his prowess, and called them all cowardly and the like.
A lame beggar who had pushed himself well to the front of the ring about the stage came in for a share of Nat's abuse. This was a strange-looking fellow, with very dirty ragged clothes upon him, and a black patch over one eye. He wore a beard, pointed and untrimmed, and he listened very calmly to the other's noisy chattering.
"Come up here, you dirty villain; and I'll dust your rags for you," cried Nat, flourishing his staff.
"If you will use a shorter staff than this, Master Windbag," said the beggar, quietly, and showing his stick, "I'll take all the beating you can give me."
With scornful laughter Nat accepted this challenge.
The beggar took off his ragged coat and limped painfully onto the stage.
They fenced for an opening, both playing well. The beggar, for all his limp and one eye, had a pretty notion of the sport, but he had the queerest gait upon him; and as he hobbled round and round the stage under Nat's blows the people laughed continuously.
Nat caught him smartly upon the right arm a sounding thwack. The beggar made as if to drop his staff forthright, and Nat lifted himself for another and crushing blow.
But the one-eyed man recovered his guard, sprang suddenly on one side, and, as Nat's staff was descending vainly, the beggar dealt his foe a back thrust so neatly, so heartily, and so swiftly that Nat was swept off the stage into the crowd as a fly off a table.
The beggar waited the full time for him to return; and then claimed the prize.
The victory of this queer unknown was popular. Nat was a great bully and braggart, and many of them had suffered insult at his hands. Therefore, when the beggar went to fetch his prize from the Sheriff's
own hand, there was great cheering and applause. He found Monceux seated in a handsome booth, with his daughter and her maids, nearby the archery rings. Here the shooting was in progress.
The Sheriff narrowly watched each competitor, and glanced often towards Mistress Monceux. The demoiselle Marie had one of her women sitting near her feet, so that every movement she made might be observed. The Sheriff's daughter signalled "No," and "No"
again to her father as the various bowmen took their places.
The beggar paused to watch the contest. It seemed to amuse him exceedingly.
Master Patch was thus for some minutes close to the Sheriff's tent. His patched eye was turned towards it, and he seemed to be blissfully unaware of the great man's near presence. But he had taken due note, nevertheless, of Master Monceux and his cold daughter, and the maid sitting so forlornly upon the hard ground at the latter's feet.
One of the Nottingham men, a tanner by trade, had so far been most successful, and like Nat, he began to be disdainful of the rest, and to swagger it somewhat each time his turn to shoot came round. "The prize will surely be thine, Arthur-à-Bland," cried Monceux, loudly clapping his hands together after this fellow had made a fair shot.
"Indeed, I do not think that Master Hood himself would beat me today," admitted Arthur-à-Bland, conceitedly.
The beggar heard both remark and answer. "Thou speakest well, gossip," he said, "here in Nottingham town; yet I would venture to advise thee, were this pretty place in Sherwood and the bold Robin within earshot."
The archer turned towards him. "What do you know, old Patch-and-Rags, of Robin Hood?" he sneered, angrily.
"I know too much of him," answered the beggar. "Once, like you, gossip, I boasted of my skill with the bow--'twas in Sherwood, whilst I was walking with a stranger who had met me very civilly upon the road. Says he: 'If you can hit yon mark I'll know you a better archer than Robin Hood.' So I flew my shaft arrogantly, and 'twas a tidy shot, near two hundred paces. My arrow struck the mark fairly. 'What say you, stranger?' says I. He made for reply such a bowshot as never I have seen before; for, having stepped back a score of yards, he yet was able to speed his arrow so cleverly as to split mine own from end to end. 'Thou art Robin Hood,' I said then, and I had fear upon me."
"What then?" asked Arthur-à-Bland, composedly.
"For my boasting he gave me a drubbing," the beggar went on, "and for my archery five silver crowns."
"Then thou canst bend the bow?" said Arthur. "Will you not attempt my lord Sheriff's prize, old Patch-and-Rags?"
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The beggar dealt his foe a back thrust so neatly and so swiftly that Nat was swept off the stage into the crowd as a fly off a table
"Marry, I would most willingly," cried the beggar, "but for my lame leg and blind eye."
"One does not need a leg to shoot arrows, nor yet two eyes. Take aim, gossip, and show us how you played the sport in Sherwood on that day."
The archer's tone was mocking; but the beggar only replied that he had already won a prize and was content.
Just then one of the Sheriff's guards approached him.
"My master would have speech with you, friend," said he.
"And so you have met bold Robin Hood?" asked Monceux, so soon as the beggar stood before him.
"Well do I know it," the beggar answered, writhing his eye in fiery glance about the Sheriff's tent. "My body is full sore yet from the beating he gave me."
"Are you sure 'twas Robin Hood?"
"That am I. He is a slim, slight man with long hair, and small, fair beard."
"If you could lead me to him, friend, I would reward you well," said the Sheriff, in malicious tones.
"I will show the place where we met soon as you will, Excellence," replied the beggar.
Monceux nodded, and made a sign of dismissal. "I will speak further with you later, friend," he said.
The beggar went back to the archer and said that now he would take a shot with him. "I may as well win two prizes as one," he continued, affably, "for the horse will help me carry my pieces."
Arthur-à-Bland was greatly incensed at this speech, and took aim with hands that trembled with anger. However, he made a pretty shot, and a round of cheering met his effort.
The beggar took the bow which one of the archers held out to him, and fitted his arrow to it with a great show of care. When at last he released the arrow all got ready to laugh and leer at him.
He contrived, however, to surprise them once again, for his arrow was found to be a full inch nearer the middle of the mark than all the others.
They shot again and again, and at length Arthur-à-Bland lodged his
shaft in the center of the target. "Now mend that shot, Master Patch, an you can," cried he.
"Nay, I fear that I must now yield the prize to you, gossip," declared the beggar. "Yet I will even do my best."
He aimed with every circumstance of effort, and flew his shaft with a loud sigh. It rose up high in the air as though it must fly altogether wide of the target, and folk had already opened their mouths to laugh, when suddenly it dropped in a graceful curve towards the mark, the steel point struck exactly on the point of the other's arrow, just where it had lodged loosely in the bull, and Master Bland's arrow came tumbling to the ground, leaving the beggar's shaft shaking in the very hole its opponent's arrow had made.
This wondrous feat of archery evoked the loudest applause, and had not the Sheriff been so foolish a man, must have awakened suspicion in his breast. But, no--Master Monceux pompously gave over the Arab horse with its saddle, and the purse of gold to the victorious beggar; and then turned to leave the sports.
He bade Master Carfax to see that the beggar did not go far away. The Sheriff did not mean to lose his gifts so easily. But the beggar was very willing to keep near to the Sheriff, and asked very humbly that he might be given a place in Monceux's household, instead of taking his. horse, which was of small use to one of his trade.
"I will accept your offer," said Monceux, "on the understanding that you will take the captaincy of my archers."
With such a fellow as this in his household Monceux felt that he would soon lay Robin Hood by the heels. So he strutted to his horse, and was lifted thereon in fine self-satisfaction. His daughter mounted her palfrey, and Carfax led the beast gently, whilst the maids had to hurry over the rough stones as best they might.
The beggar gripped his staff and limped along beside the women. His roving eye implored a glance from the grey-blue eyes of the maid who had sat so uncomfortably at her mistress's knee. She moved, with downcast looks, after the rest, and only dared once peep at this strange ragged fellow.
His lips moved, making her a signal, then were shut resolutely.
* * *
That night Monceux kept open house and grew noisy in his cups. He swore that Robin Hood was both coward and villain not to have come into Nottingham to take his chance of winning the horse and purse.
Even as he spoke an arrow came flying in through one of the narrow windows of the Sheriff's hall, and, curving, fell with a rattle upon the table in front of the startled Monceux. Attached to it was an empty purse, Monceux's own--that one indeed which had that morn held the hundred pieces so comfortably! "Where is that rascal beggar?" cried the Sheriff, suddenly having his doubts.
"Where is my maid?" shrilled the demoiselle Marie, rushing in upon her father.
"I did not send for her," shouted Monceux, seeing it all. "Haste thee, Simeon, pursue them. They cannot be far away."
"Excellence, the Arab steed hath been stolen, and by thy beggar guest," cried one of the servants, running in at the other door. "Even now he has gained the bridge, carrying your new maid a-pillion, Mistress. None may hope to catch them on that fleet horse."
"They cannot win through the gates. After them, Simeon, as you love me. I never will look on you again if you do not capture Robin Hood and this girl."
Mistress Monceux was quite beside herself with fury.
"Alas, Mistress," said the servant, "the gates of Nottingham stand wide; did not my master order it so but this very morn?"
"Silence!" roared Monceux; and, unable to control his rage, he struck the fellow to the ground. "After them, Simeon, and take what men you will."
Master Carfax had other duty before him, however, for his gentle lady had relapsed into a screaming hysteria. They slapped her hands and poured wine between her lips, and finally her maids had to cut her laces and put her to bed.