"Well, Robin, on what folly do you employ yourself? Do you cut sticks for our fire o' mornings?"
Thus spoke Master Hugh Fitzooth, King's Ranger of the Forest at Locksley, as he entered his house.
Robin flushed a little. "These are arrows, sir," he announced, holding one up for inspection.
Dame Fitzooth smiled upon the boy as she rose to meet her lord. "What fortune do you bring us today, Father?" asked she, cheerily.
Fitzooth's face was a mask of discontent. "I bring myself, Dame," answered he, "neither more nor less."
"Surely that is enough for Robin and me!" laughed his wife. "Come, cast off your shoes, and give me your bow and quiver. I have news for you, Hugh, even if you have none for us. George of Gamewell has sent his messenger today, and bids me bring Robin to him for the Fair." She hesitated to give the whole truth.
"That cannot be," began the Ranger, hastily; then checked himself. "What wind is it that blows our Squire's friendship toward me, I wonder?" he went on. "Do we owe him toll?"
"You are not fair to George Montfichet, Hugh--he is an open, honest man, and he is my brother." The dame spoke with spirit, being vexed that her husband should thus slight her item of news. "That Montfichet is of Norman blood is sufficient to turn your thoughts of him as sour as old milk--"
"I am as good as all the Montfichets and De Veres hereabout, Dame, for all I am but plain Saxon," returned Fitzooth, crossly, "and the day
may come when they shall know it. Athelstane the Saxon might make full as good a King, when Henry dies, as Richard of Acquitaine, with his harebrained notions and runagate religion. There would be bobbing of heads and curtseying to us then, if you like. Squire George of Gamewell would be sending messengers for me cap in hand--doubt it not."
"For that matter, there is ready welcome for you now at my brother's house," said Mistress Fitzooth, repenting of her sharpness at once. "Montfichet bade us all to Gamewell; but here is his scroll, and you may read it for yourself." She took a scroll from her bosom as she spoke and offered it to her husband.
He returned to the open door that he might read it. His brow puckered itself as he strove to decipher the flourished Norman writing. "I have no leisure now for this screed, Mother; read it to me later, an you will."
His tone was kinder again, for he saw how Robin had been busying himself in these last few moments. "Let us sup, Mother. I dare swear we all are hungry after the heat of the day."
"I have made and tipped a full score of arrows, sir; will you see them?" asked Robin.
"That will I, so soon as I have found the bottom of this pasty. Sit yourselves, Mother and Robin, and we'll chatter afterwards."
Robin helped his mother to kindle the flax whereby the dim and flickering tapers might be lighted. His fingers were more deft at this business, it would seem, than in the making of arrows. Fitzooth, in the intervals of his eating, took up Robin's arrows one by one and had some shrewd gibe ready for most of them. Of the score only five were allowed to pass; the rest were tossed contemptuously into the black hearth onto the little heap of smouldering fire.
"By my heart, Robin, but I shall never make a proper bowman of you! Were ever such shafts fashioned to fit across cord and yew!"
"The arrows are pretty enough, Hugh," interposed the dame.
"There 'tis!" cried Fitzooth, triumphantly. "The true bowman's hand showeth not in the prettiness of an arrow, Mother, but in the straightness and hardness of the wand. Our Robin can fly a shaft right well, I grant you, and I have no question for his skill, but he cannot yet make me an arrow such as I love."
"Well, I do think them right handsomely done," said Mistress Fitzooth, unconvinced. "It is not given to everyone to make such arrows as you can, Husband; but my Robin has other accomplishments. He can play upon the harp sweetly, and sing you a good song--" Fitzooth must still grumble, however. "I would rather your fingers should bend the bow than pluck at harpstrings, Robin," growled he. "Still, there is time for all things. Read me now our brother's message." Robin, eager to atone for the faults of his arrows, stretched out the paper upon the table, and read aloud the following:
"From George à Court Montfichet, of the Hall at Gamewell, near Nottingham, Squire of the Hundreds of Sandwell and Sherwood, giving greetings and praying God's blessing on his sister Eleanor and on her husband, Master Hugh Fitzooth, Ranger of the King's Forest at Locksley. Happiness be with you all. I do make you this screed in the desire that you will both of you ride to me at Gamewell, in the light of tomorrow, the fifth day of June, bringing With you our young kinsman Robin. There is a Fair toward at Nottingham for three days of this week, and we are to expect great and astonishing marvels to be performed at it.
"Wherefore, seeing that it will doubtless give him satisfaction and some knowledge (for who can witness wonders without being the wiser for them?), fail not to present yourselves as I honestly wish. I also ask that Robin shall stay with me for the space of one year at least, having no son now and being a lonely man. Him will I treat as my own child in all ways, and return him to you in the June of next year.
"This I send by the hand of Warrenton, my man-at-arms, who shall bear me your reply.
"Given under our hand at Gamewell, the 4th day of June, in the year of grace one thousand one hundred and eighty-eight.
Robin's clear voice ceased, and silence fell upon them all. Fitzooth guessed that both his son and wife waited anxiously for his decision; yet he had so great a pride that he could not at once agree to the courteous invitation.
For himself he had no doubt. Nothing would move Fitzooth to mix with the fine folk of Nottingham whilst his claims to the acres of Broadweald, in Lancashire, went unrecognized. It was an old story, and although, by virtue of his office as Ranger at Locksley, Hugh Fitzooth might very properly claim an honorable position in the county, he swore not to avail himself of it unless he could have a better one. The bar sinister stayed him from Broadweald, so the judges had said, and haughty Fitzooth had perforce to bear with their finding. The king had been much interested in the suit, the estate being a large one, situated in the County Palatine of England, and the matter had caused some stir in the Court. When Fitzooth had failed, Henry, anxious to find favor with his Saxon subjects, had bestowed on him the keeping of a part of the forest of Sherwood, in Nottingham.
So Fitzooth, plain "master" now for good and aye, had come to Locksley, a little village at the further side of the forest, and had taken up the easy duties allotted to him. Here he had nursed his pride in loneliness for some years; then had met one day Eleanor Montfichet a-hunting in the woods. He had unbent to her, and she gave him her simple, true heart.
Strange pair, thrown together by Fate, in sooth; yet no man could say that this was an unhappy union. Within a year came black-eyed Robin to them, and they worshipped their child. But as time passed, and Hugh's claims were again put aside, his nature began to go sour once more. Now they were lonely, unfriendly folk, with no society other than that of the worthy Clerk of Copmanhurst--a hermit too. He had taught Robin his Latin grace, and had given him a fair knowledge of Norman, Saxon, and the middle tongues.
"Say that we all may go tomorrow, Father," cried Robin, breaking the silence. "I have never seen Nottingham Fair, sir, and you have promised to take me often."
"I cannot leave this place; for there is my work, and robbers are to be found even here. I have to post my foresters each day in their tasks, and see that the deer be not killed and stolen."
He paused, and then, noting the disappointment in his son's face, relented. "Yet, since there is the Fair, and I have promised it, Robin,
you shall go with your mother to Gamewell, if so be the Friar of Copmanhurst can go also. So get ready your clothes, for I know that you would wish to be at your best in our brother's hall. I will speed you tomorrow so far as Copmanhurst, and will send two hinds to serve you to Nottingham gates."
"Warrenton, my brother's man, spoke grievously of the outlaw bands near Gamewell, and told how he had to journey warily." So spoke Mistress Fitzooth, trying yet to bring her husband to say that he too would go.
"The Sheriff administers his portion of the forest very abominably then," returned Fitzooth. "We have no fears and whinings here; but I do not doubt that Warrenton chattered with a view to test our courage, or perchance to make more certain of my refusal."
"But we are to go, are we not, sir?" Robin was anxious again, for his father's tone had already changed.
"I have said it; and there it ends," said Fitzooth, shortly. "If the clerk will make the journey, you shall make it too. Further, an the Squire will have you, you shall stay at Gamewell and learn the tricks and prettinesses of Court and town. But look to your bow for use in life, and to your own hands and eyes for help. Kiss me, Robin, and get to bed. Learn all you can; and if Warrenton can show you how to fashion arrows within the year I'll ask no more of brother George of Gamewell."
"You shall be proud of me, sir; I swear it. But I will not stay longer than a month; for I am to watch over my mother's garden."
"Never will shafts such as yours find quarry, Robin. I think that they would sooner kill the archer than the birds. There, mind not my jesting. Men shall talk of you; and I may live to hear them. Be just always; and be honest."
* * *
The day broke clear and sweet. From Locksley to the borders of Sherwood Forest was but a stone's cast.
Robin was in high glee, and had been awake long ere daylight. He had dressed himself in his best doublet, green trunk hose, and pointed shoes, and had strung and unstrung his bow full a score of times. A sumpter mule had been saddled to carry the baggage, for the dame had,
at the last moment, discovered a wondrous assortment of fineries and fripperies that must perforce be translated to Gamewell.
Robin was carolling like any bird.
"Are you glad to be leaving Locksley, my son?" asked Hugh Fitzooth.
"'Tis a dull place, no doubt. And glad to be leaving home too?"
"No, sir; only happy at the thought of the Fair. Doubt it not that I shall be returned to you long ere a month is gone."
"A year, Robin, a year! Twelve changing months ere you will see me again. I have given my word now. Keep me a place in your heart, Robin."
"You have it all now, sir, be sure, and I am not really so glad within as I seem without."
"Tut, I am not chiding you. Get you upon your jennet, Dame; and, Robin, do you show the way. Roderick and the other shall lead the baggage mule. Have you pikes with you, men, and full sheaths?"
"I have brought me a dagger, Father," cried Robin, joyfully.
So, bravely they set forth from their quiet house at Locksley, and came within the hour to Copmanhurst. Here only were the ruins of the chapel and the clerk's hermitage, a rude stone building of two small rooms.
Enclosed with high oaken stakes and well guarded by two gaunt hounds was the humble abode of the anchorite.
The clerk came to the verge of his enclosure to greet them, and stood peering above the palisade. "Give you good morrow, Father," cried Robin; "get your steed and tie up the dogs. We go to Nottingham this day and you are to come with us!"
The monk shook his head. "I may not leave this spot, child, for matters of vanity," he answered, in would-be solemn tones.
"Will you not ride with the dame and my son, Father?" asked Fitzooth. "George of Gamewell has sent in for Robin, and I wish that you should journey with him, giving him such sage counsel as may fit him for a year's service in the great and worshipful company that he now may meet."
"Come with us today, Father," urged Mistress Fitzooth also. "I have
brought a veal pasty and some bread, so that we may not be hungry on the road. Also, there is a flask of wine."
"Nay, daughter, I have no thought for the carnal things of life. I will go with you, since the Ranger of Locksley orders it. It is my place to .obey him whom the King has put in charge of our greenwood. Bide here whilst I make brief preparation."
His eyes had twinkled, though, when the dame had spoken; and one could see that 'twas not on roots and fresh water alone that the clerk had thrived. Full and round were the lines of him under his monkly gown; and his face was red as any harvest moon.
Hugh bade farewell briefly to them, while the clerk was tying up his hounds and chattering with them.
When the clerk was ready Fitzooth kissed his dame and bade her be firm with their son; then, embracing Robin, ordered him to protect his mother from all mischance. Also he was to bear himself honourably and quietly; and, whilst being courteous to all folk, he was not to give way unduly to anyone who should attempt to browbeat or to cozen him.
"Remember always that your father is a proud man; and see, take those arrows of my own making and learn from them how to trim the hazel. You have a steady hand and bold eye, be a craftsman when you return to Locksley, and I will give you control of some part of the forest, under me. Now, farewell--take my greetings to our brother at Gamewell."
Then the King's Forester turned on his heel and strode back towards Locksley. Once he paused and faced about to wave his cap to them: then his figure vanished into the green of the trees.
A sadness fell upon Robin--unaccountable and perplexing. But the hermit soberly journeyed toward Nottingham, the two men-at-arms, with the sumpter mule, riding in front.
The road wound in and about the forest, and at noon they came to a part where the trees nigh shut out the sky.
Robin spied out a fine old stag, and his fingers itched to fit one of his new arrows to his bow. "These be all of them King's deer, Father?" he asked the friar, thoughtfully.
"Every beast within Sherwood, royal or mean, belongs to our King, child.
"Do they not say that Henry is away in a foreign land, Father?"
"Ay, but he will return. His deer are not yet to be slain by your arrows, child. When you are Ranger at Locksley, in your father's stead, who shall then say you nay?"
"My father does not shoot the King's deer, except those past their time," answered Robin, quickly. "He tends them, and slays instead any robbers who would maltreat or kill the does. Do you think I could hit yon beast, Father? He makes a pretty mark, and my arrow would but prick him."
The clerk glanced toward Mistress Fitzooth. "Dame," said he, gravely, "do you not think that here, in this cool shadow, we might well stay our travelling? Surely it is near the hour of noon? And," here he sank his voice to a sly whisper, "it would be well perhaps to let this temptation pass away from before our Robin! Else, I doubt not, the King will be one stag the less in Sherwood."
"I like not this dark road, Father," began the dame. "We shall surely come to a brighter place. Robin, do you ride near to me, and let your bow be at rest. Warrenton, your uncle's man, told me but yesterday--"
Her voice was suddenly drowned in the noise of a horn, wound so shrilly and distantly as to cause them all to start. Then, in a moment, half a score of lusty rascals appeared, springing out of the earth almost. The men-at-arms were seized, and the little cavalcade brought to a rude halt.
"Toll, toll!" called out the leader. "Toll must you pay, everyone, ere your journey be continued!"
"Forbear," cried Robin, waving his dagger so soon as the man made attempt to take his mother's jennet by the bridle. "Tell me the toll, and the reason for it; and be more mannerly."
The man just then spied that great stag which Robin had longed to shoot, bounding away to the left of them. Swiftly he slipped an arrow across his longbow and winged it after the flying beast.
"A miss, an easy miss!" called Robin, impatiently. Dropping his dagger, he snatched an arrow from his quiver, fitted it to his bow and sent it speeding towards the stag. "Had I but aimed sooner!" murmured Robin, regretfully, when his arrow failed by a yard to reach its quarry; and the clerk held up his hands in pious horror of his words.
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The road wound in and about the forest, and at noon they came to a part where the trees nigh shut out the sky
"The shot was a long one, young Master," spoke the robber, and he stooped to pick up Robin's little weapon. "Here is your bodkin--'tis no fault of yours that the arrow was not true."
They all laughed right merrily; but Robin was vexed.
"Stand away, fellows," said he, "and let us pass on. Else shall you all be whipped."
Again the leader of the band spoke. "Toll first, lording; tender it prettily to us, and you shall only tender it once."
"I'll tender it not at all," retorted young Fitzooth. "Fie upon you for staying a woman upon the King's highroad! Pretty men, forsooth, to attack in so cowardly a fashion!"
"All must buy freedom of the greenwood, Master," answered the man, quite civilly. "We, who exact the toll, take no heed of sex. Pay us now, and when you return there shall be no questioning."
"A woman should be a safe convoy and free from all toll," argued Robin. "Now here are my two men."
"Slaves, Master; and they have only your mule and the two pikes. It is not enough."
"You will leave us nothing then, it seems," said Dame Fitzooth, in trembling but brave voice.
"There is one thing that we all do value, Mistress, and I purpose sparing you that. We will do no one of you any bodily harm."
"Take my purse, then," sighed Mistress Fitzooth. "There is little enough in it, for we are poor folk."
"Ask toll of the Church," cried Robin, staying his mother. "The Church is rich, and has to spare. And afterwards, she can grant absolution to you all."
Again the robbers laughed, as the clerk began explaining very volubly to them that they were welcome to all that Mother Church could on this occasion offer.
"We know better than to stay a monk for toll," said the robber. "Beside, would Your Excellence have us commit sacrilege?"
"I would have you leave hold of my bridle," answered Robin, very wrathfully.
"Pay the toll cheerfully, youngling," cried one of the others, "and be
not so wordy in the business. We have other folk to visit; the day is already half gone from Sherwood."
"I will shoot with you for the freedom of the forest," said Robin, desperately. "An I lose, then shall you take all but my mother's jennet. She shall be allowed to carry my mother into Gamewell, whilst I remain here, as hostage, for her return."
"Let the dam bring back a hundred crowns in each of her hands, then," replied the chief of the robbers.
"It is agreed," answered Robin, after one appealing glance towards the dam. "Now help me down from my horse, and let the clerk see fair play. Set us a mark, good Father, and pray Heaven to speed my arrows cunningly."
The clerk, who had kept himself much in the background, now spoke. "This wager seems to savor of unholiness, friends," said he, solemnly. "Yet, in that it also smacks of manliness, I will even consent to be judge. You, sir, since you are doubtless well acquainted with the part, can speak for distance. Now, I do appoint the trunk of yon birch tree as first mark in this business."
"Speed your arrow, then, lording," laughed the robber, gaily. "'Tis but forty ells away! I will follow you respectfully, never doubt it."
Robin bent his bow and trained his eyes upon the birch.
Then suddenly came back upon him his father's words: "Remember that I am a proud man, Robin."
"I will," muttered Robin, betwixt set teeth, and he aimed with all his heart and soul in it. There came the twang of the bowstring, and the next moment the gooseshaft was flying towards its mark.
"A pretty shot, Master," said the robber, glancing carelessly towards the arrow, quivering still in the trunk of the birch tree. "But you have scarce taken the centre of our mark. Let me see if I may not mend your aim."
His arrow sang through the summer air, and took root fairly in the middle of the trunk, side by side with Robin's.
"You win first round, friend," said the clerk, with seeming reluctance. "Now, listen, both, whilst I make you a better test." He was about to continue, when an interruption occurred, one that saved him necessity of further speech.