The day after Scarlett's departure found Robin in frantic mood. Two emissaries had he sent out to gain news of Marian, and neither had returned. He had had now no direct tidings of her for nigh on three months. Little John's silence, too, disturbed him.
Robin determined that he would see Marian, at least, this day, or die in the attempt. So, notwithstanding all that the rest could urge, their leader started away on foot towards the city.
He walked quickly, and his mind was so filled with dreadful thoughts that he exercised little of his usual care. Emerging suddenly upon the highroad, he plunged almost into the arms of his enemy, the Lord Bishop of Hereford.
It was too late for Robin to retreat, and he was too far away from him to wind his horn in the hope of rousing his men. The Bishop rode at the head of a goodly company and had already espied him.
About a mile away, nearby the roadside, was a little tumbledown cottage. Robin remembered it and saw his only chance of safety. At once he doubled back through the underwood, much to the surprise of the Bishop, who thought he had truly disappeared by magic. In a few minutes Robin had come to the little cottage. The owner of the place, a little crabbed old woman, rose up with a cry of alarm.
"'Tis I, Robin Hood; where are your three sons?"
"They are with you, Robin. Well do you know that. Do they not owe life to you?"
"Help now repay the debt," said Robin, in a breath. "The Bishop will soon be without, and he has many men."
"I will save you, Robin," cried the old woman, bustlingly. "We will change raiment, and you shall go forth as the poor lone woman of this cot. Go without and strip yourself speedily; and throw me your clothes through the doorway."
Robin was in the garden and had slipped out of his Lincoln green in a moment. He clad himself with equal celerity in the old woman's rags, as she flung them out to him one by one.
The Bishop perceived an old decrepit woman hobbling across the road, as he with this company came hastening down it. He bade one of his fellows to stay her, and ask if she had seen such and such a man. The soldier gave her a full and vivid description of Robin Hood. The old woman, thus rudely prevented from gathering her sticks--already she had a little handful of them--answered that there was a man within her cottage; and that she would be right glad if my lord Bishop would cause him to be driven out of it. "In sooth, my good gentlemen, he is none other than that vagabond Robin Hood," piped she.
"Enough!" cried the Bishop, triumphantly. "Enter the cottage, men; beat down the door, if need be. A purse of gold pieces is already offered for the capture of Robin Hood, and I will give a hundred beside!"
The old woman was released, and went on gathering twigs for her fire. Little by little she edged towards the forest, and while the Bishop's men were beating down her cottage door she vanished between the trees.
Then she began to run, with surprising quickness, towards Barnesdale.
Stuteley encountered her presently, and was at first prepared to treat her in rough fashion. "Hold your hand, sweet Will," cried Robin, "it is I, your master. Summon our fellows, and return with me speedily. My lord of Hereford is come again to Sherwood."
When Will had done, laughing he blew his horn. "Why, Mistress," said he, turning his grinning face to Robin as though seized with a notion, "is not this the day when the knight Sir Richard of the Lee--he to whom you gave Arthur-à-Bland--swore he would return to pay us our moneys?"
"'Tis near the time, in sooth," admitted Robin.
"Then surely he hath sent the Bishop to us, not being able to come himself?" argued Will. "We will see if the Bishop is carrying four hundred gold pennies with him. If it be so, then I am right, indeed."
* * *
The Bishop, for all his bold words, had not yet nerved himself to give the necessary command of death against the person of Robin Hood. Since he would not come out of the cottage, the door must be beaten down.
When this had been done, the Bishop's men had peeped in. "He is here, hiding," they cried, exultingly. "Shall we slay him with our pikes?"
"Nay, keep watch upon and guard this cottage against all comers. Go, one of you, to Nottingham, with all speed, and bring the Sheriff to us, with many men. Say that I bid him here to settle matters with Robin Hood."
The good Bishop of Hereford did not intend to give this villain a single chance. Were he brought out into the open, he might, by some magic, contrive an escape. Lying in this hut under the pikes of the Bishop's men he was safe, and if the worst came to the worst might readily be slain.
The messenger detached from his escort had not carried the Bishop's message to the Sheriff very far ere his master would have wished to change it. In a moment, whilst my lord of Hereford was complacently gloating over his capture--whilst indeed he was himself peering into the dark cottage in order to catechise his prisoner--there appeared on the highroad the shabby figure of that very old woman who had innocently helped to set the trap.
She called out in a strident voice to the soldiers about her dwelling. "Stand by, lazy rascals," cried she, "stand away from my gates. What are you doing on my ground?"
"Madam," answered the Bishop, turning round to her, "these are my men, and I have given them the order to guard this cottage."
"God-a-mercy!" swore the beldame, harshly. "Things have come to a pass in sooth when our homes may be treated like common jails. Take away this robber and your fellows from my house on the instant,
or I will curse you all in eating and drinking and sleeping."
"Not so fast, mother," argued the Bishop, smiling easily at her simulated rage. "All this has been done by my orders, and is therefore in law."
The old woman clapped her hands impatiently. At the signal the greenwood men sprang out on all sides of the cottage. The Bishop saw himself and his men-at-arms trapped; but he determined to make a fight for it. "If one of you but stir an inch towards me, rascals," he cried, spitefully, "it shall be to sound the death of your master Robin Hood. My men have him here under their pikes, and I will command them to kill him forthwith. Further, he shall be killed an you do not at once disperse."
Then Robin stepped out before his men. He flung off the old crone's cap which he had worn so cleverly. "Come, kill me, then, lord," he called, cheerfully. "Here am I, waiting for your pikes and their pokes. Hasten to make sure business of it, for I am in no gentle humor."
The old woman, who, in the garb of Robin Hood, had been lying silent and still so long within the cottage, jumped up then quite nimbly. In all the bald absurdity of her disguise she came to the door of the cottage and looked forth. "Give you good-den, my lord Bishop," piped she; "and what make you at so humble a door as this? Do you come to bless me and give me alms?"
"Ay, marry, that does he!" said Stuteley, coming forward. "To you, mother, and to us also. You must know that my lord bears with him a bag of four hundred pieces from Sir Richard of the Lee, who did borrow this money from us to lend it to my lord."
"Now, by all the saints--" began the Bishop.
"They are watching you, brother," said Stuteley, impudently, "so be wary in your speech. Give into my hand the four hundred pieces which you took from the knight I have named. You cannot deny that you did take them from him in the June of last year?"
"The knight owned them to me, villain," said the Bishop, furiously. He saw that his men were outnumbered, and that all the outlaws had drawn bows aimed against them and him. A word not to the liking of these desperate fellows would loosen fifty horrid shafts upon him. "Sir Richard did owe them to me," he repeated, omitting the epithet.
"Hark now to that!" said Robin, still in his disguise. "Listen to it, friends, for ye all were witnesses that Sir Richard swore to me that the Bishop had robbed him, and sought to rob him more. Did not you, in honest truth, lend the knight four hundred pieces, my lord?"
"I did not lend him that precise amount," admitted the Bishop. "Four hundred pieces included also the interest of the sum I gave."
"Ho! you gave?" Robin snapped up the word. "You gave it, my lord?"
"I will not bandy words with you, you false villain," shouted the Bishop, suddenly losing control of himself. "Why do you not charge them, men? Take the word from me, and hew these fellows down as they stand."
"They will be well advised to remain as they are," spoke Robin. "See now how we command you all! " He took a bow and arrow out of Much's hands, and sped a shaft so truly towards the purpling Bishop that his mitred cap was sent spinning from off his bald head.
My lord turned green and yellow. He had thought himself dead almost. "Take my money, rascals," he quavered, feebly; and Stuteley approached him, cap in hand.
"Tied to the saddle of my palfrey you will find my all," murmured the Bishop, sighing deeply.
Stuteley took a well-filled bag from under my lord's empty saddle. He spread his cloak upon the road and counted out four hundred pieces into it. "The interest, Master?" asked Will, twinkling to Robin.
"Pay that to this old woman who hath befriended and saved me; and give her, further, two hundred of the pieces on thy cloak," commanded Robin. "We will share with her, even as she hath already shared with me this day."
The outlaws then withdrew, taking with them the old woman and the Bishop's gold. They left him in no great humor; but forbore to provoke him further.
This adventure had, however, banished all hope of Robin making his projected journey into Nottingham. He had perforce to return to the caves at Barnesdale, to get changed again into a more befitting dress. The day was old when he was ready to go out once more; and at Stuteley's entreaty Robin consented to wait until the morning.
The Bishop lost no time in making Nottingham. He and his men were so ashamed of having been overcome so easily by the greenwood men that they had perforce to magnify Robin's band and its prowess twentyfold.
Amongst the many knights who had followed, hopelessly, in the Princess's train was one whose attentions had ever been very noxious to her. This was a coarse, overfed, overconfident Norman, brutally skilful in the games at tourneys and ruthless in battles à outrance. His name was Guy of Gisborne, and he hailed from the borders of Lancashire. To him had fallen the rich fat acres of Broadweald, that place for which poor Hugh Fitzooth had wrestled vainly for so long.
He had persecuted her unavailingly--'twas through a scene with him that Scarlett had come so much into the maid's favor. Sir Guy had followed her to Nottingham, meaning to steal her from the Sheriff at first chance. "No Saxon churl shall hope to carry off this prize from me," thought Sir Guy. "Her beauty pleaseth me, and her fortune will help mine own. Therefore, I will follow her meekly until we come nearer to my own land. Then, perhaps, one night pompous Monceux may find her flown. He will be blamed; and none need know whither the little bird has gone and by whom she hath been trapped."
Sir Guy of Gisborne found another in the field with him; the Princess had not waited for him to steal her. The little bird had flown ere Sir Guy's trap had been set.
So the Bishop of Hereford found both the Sheriff and Sir Guy in evil humor. My lord told his story, raging against Robin; the Sheriff had his complaint--directed against the Princess in general and no man in particular.
"Depend on it, Monceux, this rascal hath stolen away your charge," said the Bishop, in order to stir the Sheriff to greater lengths against Robin. "How can you sit here so idly, first losing your gold plate to him and then your gold? Now, with one blow goeth this Princess who was most solemnly committed to your charge, and with her your good name. For, without doubt, this matter will cost you your office."
Monceux was overcome with terror; his eyes started out from his head. "I did hear them speak of some girl betwixt themselves, now that I think on it," continued the Bishop, artfully, noting the effect he had
made. "'This woman shall share with us'--ay, those were Robin's very words. The Princess hath been stolen by him."
"She last was seen walking towards the woods, 'tis true," murmured the unhappy Sheriff. "But, truly, I am not to blame in this plaguey business."
"I will encounter the villain for you, Sheriff," said Sir Guy, with a cunning glance. "And if I do rid you of him, will you swear to stand by me in another matter?"
"Your word on it, then-here in my lord's holy presence," Sir Guy went on. "This girl hath been told by a council of wiseacres that she must marry some Saxon noble. But her heart is given to another--to myself, in short. Swear that you both will help me to win her, and I will take her from your merry Robin and kill him afterward."
They both promised readily that they would do all that he could ask--if only he would kill Robin Hood outright. The Bishop had great influence at Court, and Sir Guy intended that he should smooth matters for him after the abduction of the Princess. The Sheriff was to hold fast to any story that might be necessary, and to swear to the little Princess that Sir Guy of Gisborne was the very Saxon whom she had been ordered to marry.
"All this is settled between us," observed the knight, comfortably. "Give me a number of men, all of them good archers, and put them at my sole command. I will go forth tomorrow in a disguise such as will deceive even your wonderful Robin."
"We will hold over the hanging and flaying of the other rascal until his master can dance beside him," cried the Sheriff, conceiving Robin to be already caught.