This escort saved Geoffrey from the attack planned upon him by the two treacherous robbers. They spied him out, and followed the small cavalcade throughout the journey, but at a respectful distance, uttering deep threats against the lad who had warned the knight of their evil intent. So, whilst making friends, Robin also made enemies: but none so bad as that cold-faced woman of Nottingham Castle. She had recognized in Robin of Locksley the youth who had come with old Montfichet on the first day of the Fair.
Nearby Gamewell, Roughbeard called a halt. He had been strangely silent, being over-doubtful.
"Farewell, friends," said he, doffing his cap to them. "Here our roads do part, for I must go further through the forest."
"l, too, have that direction before me, if so be that you are travelling westward," said Geoffrey to him, with well-assumed diffidence, and speaking through his casque. He had known the outlaw at once; but had forborne to show it, scarce dreaming that Robin also had pierced Will's disguise.
Robin became busy in his thoughts when he saw his cousin and Roughbeard riding of together like this. That secret way from the hut which led into Sherwood; the two villains who had plotted against Geoffrey--why, all was clear! Geoffrey now was with them of the forest; had been seeking to influence Master Will; no doubt the red trappings upon which he had laid such stress were as a signal to someone. To whom? And to what end?
Geoffrey had been cool towards Robin when warned of those scheming against him. "I can protect myself against such rabble, Cousin," was all he would say. "But I would thank you for bidding your lad to me in the joustings; it was a matter I had overlooked that one must have an esquire. I'll not forget the courtesy."
That was all. He had shrunk back into himself again; and with closed visor had ridden silently beside them. Yet he was not ungrateful; and had begun to like Robin very honestly, only Geoffrey Montfichet must be very sure of his man ere he would unbend to him.
It was already nigh on dusk as Robin rode into the court at Gamewell in dreaming abstraction. His thoughts had sprung back again from Geoffrey to the blue-eyed maid: and in cloudlands he saw himself her knight. Wondrous and mighty would be the deeds that he should perform for her dear sake--did she bid him to them.
Then he remembered Broadweald, and how he had sworn within himself to set his life to win that, for his father's happiness.
Ay: but surely in the winning of Broadweald there might chance smaller prizes, which properly he might yield for a smile from this fair maid? Or again, might not he battle for the two together?
"Robin, Robin!" He heard old Montfichet's voice, calling from the shadow of the porch. "Where are you, child? I did not espy you at the bridge. Come here, boy, and let me tell you something of sorrow. There has befallen a sad mischance to your father at Locksley--"
"Sir, sir," cried poor Robin, waking suddenly, "tell me not that he is dead!" He sprang hastily from his grey steed and ran towards the Squire.
"No, not that."
"Ah, but my heart forewarns me. He has been hurt by some beast? It is the season when the deer are wild."
"Master Fitzooth has been attacked by a great stag nearby your home. That is all we know of it, child; and I give it you plainly at once, that you may hear the worst. Your mother has already gone to him, with the clerk and a full two score of men. For the captain of the foresters has kindly joined forces with mine own fellows; so that no further harm may befall."
"I'll follow her, sir. Give me leave to go."
"'Twere wiser to wait till morning, boy. What could you do now? Mayhap we fret ourselves too much, as 'tis. But you shall go, with Warrenton and your esquire, when morning is here. Ay, and I will come too; and we will bring with us the most skilful leech in Nottingham. I have already sent a messenger to him, an hour since, so soon as the dame had gone."
"I like not my mother having been sent for, sir. That shows me that the hurt is deadly. To think that I was playing so foolishly at the moment when I might have been of use to him!"
So rudely ended Robin's dreaming.
In the morning they set out for Locksley; the Squire with the leech, and six mules bearing such delicacies as old Gamewell's generous mind could think upon. Warrenton headed a full score of men, for fear of the outlaws; and they took a litter with them to bring Master Fitzooth to Gamewell.
The dame met them at the latch gate which Robin knew so well. Her face was deathly pale and her mouth quivered as she tried to frame a welcome to them.
"Mother!" cried Robin, in anguished voice, running to her; and there was no need for further speech. In that one cry and in the expression of her mute, answering face, the truth was told and understood. No use to fight for Broadweald now; were it his a hundred times over, Robin could never do that with it which he in all his boyhood had planned. Hugh Fitzooth, Ranger of the Forest of Locksley, was dead.
* * *
The good Clerk of Copmanhurst, who had appeared from within the cottage, told the story of Fitzooth's death. Fitzooth had been alone when the huge wild stag had attacked him; was near his death when discovered by two of his men. He had regained consciousness only at the sound of his wife's voice; had kissed her with fainting breath; and, having labored to send Robin a message of love and pride in him, had gradually faded in spirit until the dawn.
It was an unhappy ending to a life soured by disappointment; yet somehow this man had managed to win a way into the hearts of many people. The few villagers of Locksley all had their tender word or humble tribute of affection to offer the dame and her sorrowing son; and
thus much of the edge of their grief was blunted. Until the interment the priest stayed with them, and so did old Gamewell, who paid all the fees and expenses inevitable in consequence of Fitzooth's decease.
Afterward, the Squire would have them go back to Gamewell with him; but Robin had determined to ask for his father's post. This bitter time made the lad into a man suddenly. It was the evening of the day when they had laid Fitzooth to rest in the little churchyard of Locksley that Montfichet returned again to talk of his plan of making Robin his heir.
The old man argued reasonably and well; and Robin listened in silence until he was done. Then, "Very generously and indulgently have you talked with us, sir," said Robin, "and sure thing it is that we owe you such debt as I can never hope to pay. Yet I cannot feel that 'twould be a man's part to live an idle life. Surely I should do something, sir, to win the right to wear your name? Moreover, I must not forget that there is another--nay, hear me, sir--thine own son, whose birthright I should be stealing away from him."
"Boy," interrupted old Gamewell, on a sudden resolution, "will you share Gamewell with me as Geoffrey's brother, then? If so be this way out of it will meet your objections, I'll sink my prejudice. Geoffrey shall go halves with you."
"That were the course nearer to my heart, sir; and yet not all that I would desire. I have no right to talk to you so openly; but the matter is, in a manner, forced upon me."
"It is agreed then, Robin?" cried the Squire, eagerly. "And so you will take your mother's olden name and become Montfichet of Gamewell?"
"I would rather serve the King here for one year, at least," said Robin, arguing still. "You might think better on't, sir. Let me try my strength or weakness; and find out myself for myself. My father would have wished me to fight my own way in the world."
"The lad speaks soothly, Squire," said the clerk, interposing, "and I would counsel you to agree to his notions. Moreover, he has not yet finished his studyings with myself in the Latin tongue."
"Leave me young Stuteley and Warrenton, sir, and your blessing, and let me win bread for my mother and myself for twelve months from today. Then, if I may, and you wish, I'll come humbly to you." Robin
went over to him. "And believe me always as being very grateful, sir. I would that I might not seem obstinate in this."
"Have it so, then, Robin. I'll bear your letter to Monceux myself, and rally him about the arrow which you won!"
"Will the Sheriff appoint me, then?" asked Robin, a trifle disconcerted.
"He will advise the King in the matter. 'Tis but a form. The post of Ranger of Locksley is yours, merely for the asking. Who could gainsay your right to it? Give me the letter; and I will be your messenger. I go tomorrow to Gamewell, and will journey to Nottingham the next day. Now, since I understand that this holy man would wish to see you alone, and I would like to talk with your mother. I'll leave you, boy. Count me always as friend, Robin Fitzooth Montfichet."
He added the last word half-enquiringly, half-lovingly; and twinkled to the clerk to see how Robin might take it. But the lad made no reply beyond kissing the old man's fingers very respectfully and tenderly; and with a sigh, old George of Gamewell offered his arm to the dame, who had silently listened throughout the discussion.
Left alone, the clerk approached Robin. "Now, boy, what I have to say is soon told. Know then that I have learned of your adventures with the Scarlet Knight; and that he is in league with Will o' th' Green. Further, I have had it whispered to me that he is none other than Geoffrey of Montfichet. It matters not how this knowledge came to me; I do but seek to warn you to tread gently and warily in the days now before you. So far, life has been kind to you, and surely there is no reason why you should not prosper very exceedingly. There is for you a good friend in Gamewell's Squire."
"And one also at Copmanhurst, Father."
"Assuredly, boy. But I am a poor anchorite and one unable to help you, save by friendly counsel. Take heed not to touch Montfichet too nearly in the matter of his son," added he, warningly; "he is a strange man, and will brook no meddling."
"I would not see Geoffrey wronged, Father, not even by Robin of Locksley," said Robin, vehemently.
The clerk smiled at him. "You may coax the Squire, an you will, boy," said he, twinkling; "for I do think that one may achieve more that
way than by any other. But he careful not to let him see that you would lead him; and, above all, provoke him not. Montfichet is an obstinate man. His heart prompts him to forgive Geoffrey; and doubtless he could get the ban removed from off the young man's head. But the Squire will not readily forgo his oath. So now, rest content that he will share Gamewell with Geoffrey and yourself, and do not let him know that once you did deceive him."
"Deceive him, Father?"
"Did you not go out secretly to meet the Scarlet Knight, boy? And do you not now hide from Gamewell that his son is in hiding with Will o' th' Green? Be prudent and tread no more in this path. Peace be with you, Robin Fitzooth; and discretion also."
He bade Robin good night, and set out towards his lonely cell near St. Dunstan's shrine; leaving the other perplexed and distressed at his words.
The first clouds on Robin's horizon were appearing.