The autumn ripened into winter. Allan found means to send Robin news of them often: Master Fitzwalter had not returned, but had sent another letter saying that he would do so ere long. They all were happy and unmolested in the city. Of the Sheriff and his daughter they had seen nothing. That Warrenton was well, and that they had gotten them a man cook and other servants.
Marian wrote little crabbed messages to him. Brief and ill-spelt as they were, they became Robin's chiefest treasures. Marian forbore making any attempt to see her love, for fear that she might be watched and followed, and so bring about Robin's capture. She fretted sorely at this restraint placed upon her by Allan's more prudent hands.
The demoiselle Marie had made a miscalculation. She knew that presently Robin would seek Marian, even in the lion's mouth. Then would come the day of the Sheriff's triumph.
The little house of the Fitzwalters was spied upon from within. No one bethought them of this new cook. Had Little John once espied him there would have been a different tale to tell, however.
He had offered his services to Warrenton at a small premium, saying that he had lost his last place with being too fond of his bed.
He said his name was Roger de Burgh, and that he came of good family. The wages he asked were so small, and he seemed so willing, and had been so frank as to his failing, that Marian bade him take up his quarters forthwith in her father's house.
Life passed uneventfully for them in the Fitzwalter household. It was neither happy nor unhappy. Mistress Fennel found it vastly more
amusing than the draughty caves of Barnesdale; but then Mistress Fennel had her dear--and Marian had not. She was vaguely disturbed at her father's lengthened absence. Surely he should by now have determined where he would live--Nottingham or London.
The months crawled on and Christmas came and went.
Marian was still tied to Nottingham streets and Robin to Barnesdale woods. This state of inactivity had told much upon the greenwood men--upon Little John most of all.
At last the big fellow fell out with Friar Tuck, and began to grumble at everyone in turn. Robin, in despair, bade him go into Nottingham, to see how the land lay there. "If you must be breaking someone's head, Little John, let it be one of our enemies who shall suffer. But have a care, for your tongue is as long as your body. Choose a cunning disguise therefor."
"I will go as a beggar," said Little John, brightening up at the prospect of adventure. "For a beggar may chatter as much as he will--'tis part of his trade."
So clad all in rags, and bent double as though with age, Little John went forth from their caves upon a February morning. He supported himself with a stout oak staff, and carried two great bags upon his shoulders. One held his food, and the other was to be refuge for anything of note that he might find left about--such as Sheriff's plate, to wit, or a Bishop's valuables.
He encountered four fellows of the like profession nearby Nottingham north gate. One was dumb, another blind, the other two halt and lame. "Give you good morrow, brothers," said he, in a gruff voice. "It's my fortune that brings me to you, for I am in sore need of company. What is there a-doing in Nottingham since the bells be ringing a-merrily? Are they hanging a man, or skinning a beggar?"
"Neither one nor the other, you crooked churl," replied one of the crippled beggars. "The Sheriff is returned from London with his daughter, and the folk are giving him a welcome such as you will never have from the city! Stand back, for there is no room for you there. Four of us as it is are too many, and we have come here to settle who shall go on and who turn back."
"And how will you settle such a knotty point, gossip?"
"Marry, with our sticks," retorted the beggar, threateningly. "But first we will dispose of you"; and he made a fierce blow at Little John.
"If it be a fight that your stomachs are yearning for--why, I am the man for you all," Little John said at once, "and I will beat the four of you heartily, whether you be friends or enemies." Then he began to twirl his staff right merrily, and gave the dumb fellow such a crack upon his crown that he began to roar lustily.
"Why, I am a doctor, then, since I can cure dumbness," cried the outlaw. "Now let me see whether I can mend your broken leg, gossip," and he cut the first cripple so suddenly across the shins that he dropped his staff and commenced to dance with pain. "Now for your eyes, friend."
But the blind one did not wait for the cure. He took to his heels forthwith, running surprisingly straight. The other lame one ran after him full as fast.
Little John caught them after a short chase, and dusted their rags thoroughly.
"Give you good day, brothers," said he, then, well satisfied. "Now I am going to welcome the Sheriff, and, as you say Nottingham is too small a place for us all, therefore speed you towards Lincoln; 'tis a pretty town and none too far for such strong legs."
His flourishing stick spoke even more eloquently. The four of them shuffled away speedily, sore in their minds and bodies.
Nottingham was gay indeed. The Sheriff had returned from London, where he had been in order to gain more time for the capture of Robin Hood and his men. His daughter had complete faith in her scheme--it was bound in the end to be successful.
"Be patient, and all will be well," she told her father. But Christmas was the end of the time which Prince John had allowed Monceux for Robin's capture. Therefore, both the Sheriff and his daughter had journeyed to Court to see what instructions had been left, and whether they might not get the time extended.
They contrived by spending much money in bribes, and in giving grand entertainments, to achieve their ends. King Richard was away in the Holy Land. Prince John was well employed in stirring up the barons to espouse him as King while there was such an opening. There was
thus no actual monarch, and none in the Court to care much about the Sheriff or Robin. Those high in authority accepted the Sheriff's bribes, and bade him take till Doomsday.
Squire Montfichet, who was, as we know, a staunch supporter of the old order of things, would recognize no other King than Richard. As a matter of fact, the old man had no great love for him, but he was, after all, the true King, and Montfichet threw all his weight into the scale against John. The Saxon nobles were also active, feeling that now was their chance to recover power.
So Monceux and the demoiselle saw for themselves that they had nothing to fear from the Court, at any rate. They had stayed and enjoyed themselves in the city, and the Sheriff was able to make himself presently very useful.
The Princess of Aragon, one of the Court beauties, had need of an escort to York. She was going there to be married (much against her royal will) to one of the great Saxon notables. This was an arrangement made by the Richard party, in the hopes of winning the Saxons to themselves, as against John, who had already Salisbury, De Bray, and the cunning Fitzurse upon his side.
The Sheriff had arrived with his train in great state, just as Little John entered Nottingham. The outlaw came in by the north gate, as Monceux, proud of escorting the pretty Princess, entered by the south. Nottingham was gay with bunting and flags, and the bells were ringing noisily.
It was a royal procession, and soon as Little John was able to join with it his bag began to swell rapidly. Many a pocket did his sharp knife slice away from the side of unsuspecting wealthy citizens.
Sports were held in the fields, and the beggar had a merry time of it. Towards nightfall his bags were both filled, and he began to think it about time to attend to the commissions which Robin had laid upon him. This was to convey a letter to Marian, and to discover how Allan-a-Dale and his little wife were faring.
Little John shuffled with his bags along the narrow streets until he came to the house. He began to cry his wares, calling out that he was ready to change new goods for old ones, that he would buy old clothes and give good money for them.
Marian and the rest had, however, gone to see the sights, for there were to be illuminations. Only Roger the cook had been left in charge, and he, having glanced once at the noisy beggar, angrily bade him begone.
Little John only shouted the louder, and the cook furiously flung to the casement windows. The beggar passed by the house slowly, still calling "old clothes," as if he had not even noticed the angry cook.
Yet Roger's few angry words had awoke sharp recognition in Little John. "By my rags and bags," muttered he, amazed, "this rascal needeth much killing!" The scene in the Sheriff's kitchen arose before him. "This time I will fling you into the river, Master Roger--be sure of it. I wonder what evil hath brought you to this house of all others! If by chance you have harmed any one of them, vengeance shall fall upon you swift and deadly."
A thin rain had commenced to fall, and so the beggar turned back.
The house was dark and silent. The beggar stopped in front of it uncertainly, grumbling under his breath at the driving rain. just as he was about to move towards the door, the click of its latch warned him to jump back into the shadows of the next house.
A white face looked out of the Fitzwalter home, stealthily peering right and left. Little John crept farther into the shadows.
The cook came out into the wet road. He seemed to be scared and troubled. After a moment's pause he returned to the house, entered it silently, and Little John heard the latch click once more.
"Now, what mischief is in the air?" thought Little John. "Some knavish business doubtless, or my friend Roger would not be in it. By my faith, I do mistrust that man."
He went back into the middle of the road with his sacks, and commenced crying his wares afresh. Almost at once Roger opened the door again. "A murrain upon you, noisy rascal," he called; "can you not be still?"
"Ay, truly, an it pay me," answered Little John, lurching towards him, as though he were tipsy. "Can I strike a bargain with you, gossip?"
"What have you in the sacks, beggar?"
"Everything in the world, brother. I have gifts for the rich, presents for the poor."
"Have you anything fit for a cook?" asked Roger.
"I have a basting spoon and a spit."
"I will give you meat and bread--much as you can carry--if you have such a spoon as my kitchen lacks," whispered Roger.
Little John dived his hand into a sack, and brought out a silver ladle, which he had stolen from a shop that day. Roger took it eagerly, and his fingers were icy cold.
"Put your sacks down by the door, dear gossip," said Roger, after a moment's pause. "Here they will be out of the rain. I must go within to examine this ladle."
"Have you not a tankard of ale to give me?" begged Little John. "I am worn with the day."
"Enter, friend," Roger said then. "Tread lightly, for fear we disturb my folk." He took Little John into the dark passage. "I'll bring your sacks in for you, whilst you are here," continued Roger, very obligingly; and before the other could say him yea or nay, he had pulled the sacks into the house and had closed the door tightly.
It was very dark, and Little John thought it only prudent to keep his fingers on his knife. He heard the cook rustling about near to him, and presently came a faint sound as if one of the sacks had bulged forward and shifted its contents. "Hasten with the ale, good friend," whispered Little John, hoarsely. "I feel mighty drowsy in this close place; soon I shall be asleep."
Roger's voice answered him then softly from the end of the narrow hall, and almost at once the cook appeared with a lantern. He came creakingly over the boards, and handed Little John a mug of beer. "Your ladle is of the right sort, dear gossip," he announced, "and I will give you a penny for it."
"Twenty silver pennies is my price for the spoon," answered Little John, tossing off the ale at a draught. "Give it to me, brother, or return me my spoon. I do not find your ale to my taste," he added, wiping his mouth.
Roger opened the door roughly. "Then begone, ungrateful churl," he cried, forgetting his caution. He tried to push Little John roughly out into the night. "What! Would you try to steal my bags?" roared Little
[paragraph continues] John, suddenly snatching hold of Roger by the scruff of his neck. "You villain--you rascally wretch--you withered apple!"
He tossed and shook Roger like a rat, and finally flung him into the centre of the muddy road. "Help! help!" screamed the cook, at the full pitch of his voice. "Help! A thief, a thief! Help! Murder! Help!"
His cries at once attracted notice. The dull, dead street became instantly alive. With an angry exclamation Little John dashed into the passage, seized up his bags, and fled, stepping upon the writhing body of the cook as he ran.
Little John turned the first corner at top speed. Three men rushed at him with drawn swords. He swung his bags right and left and felled two of them. The third he butted with his head, and the man asked no more.
Under the wet driving night Little John ran. The bags sadly impeded him, but he would not let them go. He darted down a little court to avoid a dozen clutching hands, and fancied he had now safety.
He paused, drawing in his breath with a sob. The race had tried him terribly. The court was all dark, and his pursuers had overshot it; next instant, however, they recovered the scent and were upon him full cry.
Little John, snatching his bags, dashed up to the end of the alley. There was a door, which yielded to him.
Next instant he had plunged into the open lighted space before Nottingham Castle, into the midst of a shouting throng. The illuminations had not been a success, owing to the rain, but they gave enough light to achieve Little John's undoing. The beggar was seized and his bags were torn from him, just as those other pursuers sprang out through the alley.
"He hath robbed a house, and killed a man." shouted the foremost. "Hold him fast and sure."
"Nay--I have killed no one," cried the giant, struggling hopelessly and desperately. "Take my bags an you will; I was but bearing them to my master."
"Pretty goods to be carrying, indeed," said a voice, as someone turned one bag upside down. Onto the hard wet stones rolled a number of things collected by this industrious outlaw--pockets, daggers,
purses, knives, pieces of gold, and pennies of silver, a motley company of valuables.
"They are my master's," panted Little John, furiously. "Let them be."
"See what he hath in the other sack," cried another. "He seemeth to have robbed our butchers also." The sack was opened, and the contents laid bare.
A sudden silence fell upon the crowd, a silence of horror and hate. Then a thousand tongues spoke at once, and Little John, frozen cold with loathing, saw under the flickering lamps a dreadful thing.
Out of the second sack had fallen the limbless trunk of a dead man, cold and appalling even in this uncertain light. A head, severed through the jugular arteries, rolled at his feet, grinning and ghastly.
"'Tis Master Fitzwalter," whispered one, in a lull. "Dead and dishonored--"
The clamor became deafening, and Little John felt his senses failing fast. He was beaten and struck at by them all; they tore at him, and cursed him.
Their blows and their rage were as nothing beside the thought of that awful thing upon the ground. The crowd and the lamps reeled and swam before the outlaw's eyes and became blurred.
But the grim vision of that dreadful body became plainer and plainer to him. It assumed terrible proportions, shutting out all else.