As the days sped on and nothing was heard of Little John, Robin began to grow more and more anxious. He made up his mind to go himself into Nottingham and there see Marian, and discover and (if need be) rescue his faithful herdsman.
All the greenwood men were against him in this, however, and for once had their own way. "Let me go, Master," begged Stuteley; "for my life is of little account compared with yours."
"I will go," said Scarlett. "There is no such animus in the Sheriff's mind against me as he hath against the rest of you. I can ask for Master Carfax and he will perforce treat me fairly."
"I am not so sure of it," said Robin, significantly; "I would not trust Master Simeon further than a rope would hold him. Still, what you say is fair enough, Cousin, and if you will go into the city for us we shall all be grateful. For my part, I would dearly like to accompany you."
"Your duty is here," answered Scarlett. "Rely on me. I will find out what hath chanced to Little John, and will also attend Mistress Fitzwalter."
Will Scarlett started at once, and bore himself so well that he made sight of Gamewell within two hours. He paused for a moment without his father's house, regarding the old place with half-scornful eyes. Then, "What is to be, must be," said Will, to hearten himself.
He walked on toward Nottingham meditatively. If he could have met old Gamewell then and there he would have stopped him and asked his forgiveness. 'Twas in the morning, the sweet fresh morn, in the happy
woods, wherein birds fluttered and sang tenderly, and the peaceful deer fed placidly on the close grass of the glades.
This sylvan picture was disturbed rudely for him. A stag, wild and furious, dashed out suddenly from amongst the trees, scattering the does in terrified alarm. The vicious beast eyed Will in his bright dress, and, lowering its head, charged at him furiously. Will nimbly sprang aside, and having gained shelter of an oak, scrambled hurriedly into its branches.
The stag turned about and dashed itself at the tree.
"Now am I right glad not to be in your path, gentle friend," murmured Scarlett, trying to fix himself on the branches so that he might be able to draw an arrow. "Sorry indeed would be anyone's plight who should encounter you in this black humor."
Scarcely had he spoken when he saw the stag suddenly startle and fix its glances rigidly on the bushes to the left of it. These were parted by a delicate hand, and through the opening appeared the figure of a young girl. She advanced, unconscious alike of Will's horrified gaze and the evil fury of the stag.
She saw the beast, standing as if irresolute, there, and held out her hand to it with a pretty gesture, making a little sound with her lips as if to call it to her side. "For the love of God, dear lady--" cried Will.
And then the words died on his throat. With a savage snort of rage the beast had rushed at this easy victim, and with a side blow of its antlers had stretched her upon the ground. It now lowered its head, preparing to gore her to death.
Already its cruel horns had brushed across her once. A piteous cry rang through the woods. Will set his teeth, and swung himself to the ground noiselessly.
Then he quickly dropped to his knee, and was aiming his shaft whilst the stag was making ready for a more deadly effort. Will's arrow struck it with terrific force full in the center of its forehead. The stag fell dead across the body of the fainting maid.
Will Scarlett had soon dragged the beast from of the girl, and had picked her up in his strong arms. He bore her swiftly to the side of one of the many brooks in the vale.
He dashed cool water upon her face, roughly almost, in his agony of fear that she was already dead, and he could have shed tears of joy to see those poor closed eyelids tremble. He redoubled his efforts; and presently she gave a little gasp: "Where am I, what is't?"
"You are here, dear maid, in the forest of Sherwood, and are safe."
She opened her eyes then, and sat up. "Methinks that there was danger about me, and death," she said, wonderingly. Then recognition shone in her face, and she incontinently began to bind her fallen hair and tidy her disordered dress. "Is it you, indeed, Master Scarlett?" she asked.
"Ay, 'tis I. And, thank Heaven, in time to do you a service." Will's tones were deep and full of feeling.
"I am always in your debt, Master Will," she said, pouting, "and now you have me at grievous disadvantage. Tell me where you have been, and why you did leave Cousin Richard and France?"
"Once I had no safety there," replied Will, with meaning, "neither for myself nor for my heart. As for my leaving Richard's Court, why, foolishly, I would be always where you are."
"So you have followed me, then; is that what I am to believe?" The maid smiled. "I will confess, I did know that you were come to London, and I was glad, Will, for I had not too many friends in England, nor have them now, it would seem. But why was there no safety for you in London? And where have you hidden yourself of late?"
"There is a price upon my head. I am in exile. You know me as Will Scarlett, but in sooth my name is not so Saxon."
"I hate the Saxons," said the maid, pettishly. She had risen to her feet, but still was troubled about her tumbled hair. "I am to be married to one, and so have run away. That is why I am wandering in this stupid wood."
"Call it not stupid, it hath brought you to me once more," whispered Will, taking her hands; "and so you do not love this man after all? Is it so? Had I but known!"
"Didst leave London because of that?" asked she, lightly. "Ay, but men know how to cozen us! I'll not believe a foolish thing, not if you were to tell it me a thousand times."
"I'll tell it to you once, sweetheart. I did leave London because I learned that you were to be married to another. Life had no more to teach me than that one thing, and it was enough. For what was left for me to learn? I had loved you and loved you so well, and had loved you in vain."
"Had loved, Will? Is thy love so small, then, that it burns out like a candle, within an hour? I had believed--"
But Master Scarlett suddenly took this wilful maid to his heart. "I do love you, oh, my dear, with all my body and my life--till the end of ends, in waking and sleeping. And so I pledge my troth."
She struggled out of his arms. "I am encumbered with wild beasts at each step," cried she, all rosy and breathless. "One would kill me for blind rage, the other for love. Oh, I do not know which to fear the most. There, you may kiss my hand, Will, and I will take you for my man, since it seems that I am to be married whether I will or no. But you must carry the tidings to my Saxon in York, and, beshrew me, I hope he will not take it too hardly, for your sake."
"And yours also." Scarlett was holding her again.
"I like you well enough to be sorry if he should hurt you," said this teasing little Princess. She looked up at him, and then dropped her lashes. "Do you truly love me, Will? For truly do I love you."
And so the Princess of Aragon elected to marry Geoffrey of Montfichet, notwithstanding the politic choice of husband made for her by the wise old men in London town.
They walked on together towards Nottingham, quietly, and in deep content with the world.
They encountered a stately little cavalcade nearby the gates of the city, and knew themselves observed ere they could hope to avoid them. Putting a bold face on it, the lovers stood on one side, to permit this company to pass them.
An old man, richly dressed, came first, followed at a respectful distance by six horsemen.
The Princess watched them in happy indifference. Her frank glance roved from one to the other of the would-be steadfast faces before her. She turned her head to gaze again at the absorbed old man who led the company.
Then she checked herself in a little exclamation; and hastily averted her face. It was too late; the old fellow had been roused from his apathy. He reined in his grey horse, and asked over his shoulder: "Who are these, Jacquelaine?"
The esquire so addressed at once rode forward, but before he could speak his master had discovered an answer for himself. He had fixed fierce eyes upon Master Scarlett, and made a scornful gesture. "So 'tis you, Geoffrey, daring death now for the sake of some country wench? Ay, but you will end upon the gallows, for sure."
"I shall not ask you to pray at my bedside," retorted Scarlett, bitterly.
The Princess suddenly whipped round. "Who are you, Sir Churl, to talk of gallows and the like to us? Hast come from a hanging thyself. There is one afoot in Nottingham, I mind me."
It was now the turn of the old knight to exclaim. "Princess, you?" gasped he, in sheer amaze. He tumbled from his horse to the ground, and with old-fashioned courtesy knelt before her. She put out her hand for him to kiss.
"Rise, Master Montfichet, I pray you, 'tis not your place to kneel to me," she said, with her little Court smile.
The other horsemen had dismounted and now stood apart from the trio. The Princess was the first to speak, so soon as the old Squire had risen. "Master Montfichet and Will Scarlett, pray let me make you known to each other," she said, prettily. "This is Squire George of Gamewell, a good friend and honest adviser to me, although I do not always listen to him as I should," she laughed, easily. "This is Master Will Scarlett, whom I have known both in France and now again in England. He hath but now saved me from a dreadful death."
She paused; then added quickly and a little nervously: "My life is his, in short, Master Montfichet, and so--and so I have given it to him. We are to be married, and live in the greenwood. Therefore, you are not to speak slightingly of Master Scarlett in my presence."
Consternation, astonishment and gratification struggled together mightily in the Squire's breast. "Geoffrey, you!" he said again. "But this is beyond belief."
"Therefore believe it," spoke the Princess, lightly; "for that will show you to be no common man."
"Sir," said Geoffrey, kneeling before his father, "I pray you forgive both my rash words just now and all my seeming ingratitude. I am very fain to be friends again with you, and I do swear to be more dutiful in the years to come. Will you take my hand?"
"Ay, freely as it is offered. God save us; but who am I to be stubborn of will, in the face of these miracles?"
"Do the miracles work happiness for you, Master Montfichet?" enquired the maid, archly.
"Ay, marry. But the King will never consent to this business, be sure of it. You marrying my son-a commoner!"
"Your son?" It was now the Princess's turn to be amazed. But soon the matter was explained to her. "So, Will, you have begun by deceiving me; a bad beginning."
"I was trying to tell you, dear heart, when we made this encounter. Was I not saying that my father lived nearby here? Did I not tell you that he was a Norman--"
"There, there, do not fret your dear self. I will marry you, whether you be Will Scarlett or Geoffrey of Montfichet. It is yourself I need, after all."
"Take my steed and ride with us to Gamewell. There, at least, I must keep thee, Princess, until the King hath given his sanction to this marriage. You to rule over Gamewell? In sooth I will be a joyful man upon that day."
"And I," murmured Master Scarlett.
So they turned back towards Gamewell, and only when they were in sight of it did Scarlett remember poor Little John. Then he stopped short, reining in the horse which one of the knights had lent to him. The Princess had accepted loan of the esquire Jacquelaine's palfrey.
Will soon had told them this errand which he had come so near to forgetting altogether. "If this be the man they call John Little Nailor," said the Princess, sorrowfully, "why, he is in perilous plight. You have but just ridden through Nottingham, I take it, Master Montfichet, and have some of its news?"
"They do not seem yet to know of your adventurings, Princess."
"No, surely; for what is a woman, missing or to hand, when there is
red murder abroad? This poor fellow, whom I do believe to be innocent, was accused of theft by a rascally cook, and was pursued. 'Twas the night of our return. They chased him from pillar to post, and presently caught him close to the castle. He had two bags with him."
"'Tis Little John, then," cried Scarlett; "I saw him go out with the sacks across his back."
"In one of them they found many things that other folk had strangely lost," said the Princess, with a little grimace. "In the other there was the dead, dishonored body of a good citizen foully done to death."
Her listeners stared in their amazement. "It is a Master Fitzwalter who hath been so cruelly murdered," continued the Princess, her color coming and going. "This Little John swears that the cook did kill his master; and whilst he, Little John, was resting in Fitzwalter's house this rascal fellow must have changed the sacks."
"Fitzwalter, the warden of the gates? I knew him well. Why, he left us but three weeks since to travel to Nottingham. It seems that he had sent a messenger to his girl there that she was to follow him, but either his letter miscarried or the maid would not. So poor Fitzwalter, busy as he was, must needs return to meet his death."
"Who is this cook?" asked Scarlett.
"An evil character he hath altogether. Once he was of an outlaw robber band, headed here in these very woods under one Will of Cloudesley."
"Tell me, is he called Roger de Burgh?" asked Will.
"That is his name," answered the Princess, surprised; "do you know aught of him?"
"I know much evil of him," replied her lover; and then he told them how this very Roger had planned to take his (Will's) life, and how Robin had saved him.
The Squire nodded. "I remember," said he, slowly.
"Ay, Robin was always a good lad. This news of yours will stagger him, for he is betrothed to Mistress Fitzwalter, daughter of him who hath so dreadfully met his end."
"The two of them were arraigned, I must tell you," went on the Princess, "and both were to be racked. But they did not put it too
hardly upon Master Roger, as I have reason to know, wherefore he was able to maintain his innocence; whilst the other, in his bitter anguish, made confession of a crime which he did never commit."
"And they are hanging him whilst I stand idly here," cried Scarlett, turning to horse. "I must leave you, sweet; forgive me. Here is a man's life in the balance."
"What would you, Will?" she asked, fearfully. "The hanging is fixed for the Thursday in next week."
"Before then he shall be free," said Will Scarlett, firmly. "Farewell dear heart. Wait for me here at Gamewell; my father will be good host to you, I know."
"The maid Fitzwalter was lodging with us when I was called to London," the Squire began.
"She is now in Nottingham, sir. It is a story which I will tell you later. Now give me farewell, and your blessing."
"God's blessing be in you, Geoffrey, my son," said the Squire. It was the first time for many years that he had called Geoffrey by that name.
"And take all my heart with you, Will." The voice of this little Princess was husky; and a sob sounded in her throat. "Be cautious, and return soon to me."
She watched his swift retreating figure as he sped towards Nottingham, there to argue it with Master Carfax.