Suddenly through the greenwood came full four score of the King's Foresters, running towards the robbers, ready to seize them.
These were the foresters of Nottingham, roving far afield. The Sheriff of Nottingham had become angered at the impudent robberies of late, and now all of his foresters had spread themselves about Sherwood in the hope of making such a capture of the outlaws as would please their master and bring substantial reward to themselves. On the head of Will o' th' Green, the chief of the band, was set the price of ten golden crowns.
But alas! these crowns were still to seek; for Will o' th' Green, at first hint of the danger, had put his horn to his lips and given a long, low call upon it, and next instant not a robber was to be seen.
Each man had dropped to his hands and knees as soon as he had reached the bushes; and the foresters might beat and belabor Mother Sherwood in vain, for she would never betray her children.
Fitzooth's men-at-arms were glad to be released, and were eager now to give all information against their assailants. One of the fellows swore roundly that the learned clerk had given Will o' th' Green a very plain hint: but this assertion was most properly put aside by all who heard it.
Robin gave his story of the business, and then, having thanked the captain of the foresters, would have continued the journey. The clerk was no longer to be denied, however, from his food: and so it came about that presently the four of them were at a meal together under the trees--the captain of the foresters having agreed to join with Robin, the
hermit, and Mistress Fitzooth in an attack upon the good wine and pasty which the latter had provided.
The foresters returned in twos and threes from their fruitless search, and stood about in little knots discussing the chase. All agreed that the outlaws had some stronghold underground, with many entrances and ways into it; easily to be found by those in the secret, but impossible of passage to persons in pursuit.
"Do you go to Gamewell, friends?" asked the captain, after the meal had been finished. When he had been answered yes, he told Mistress Fitzooth that she might have an escort for the rest of the way; since he and his men must travel to Gamewell themselves, to report the encounter to Squire George of Gamewell.
Gladly Mistress Fitzooth heard this, and very cheerfully they all started afresh upon the journey.
Robin alone was sad; the fact that the robber chief's arrow had flown more near a woodman's mark than his own rankled within his breast.
Ah, but a time would come when Master Will o' th' Green should see better archery than he now dreamed of. And Robin should be the master who would teach the lesson.
Building such daydreams, he cantered quietly enough beside his mother's jennet; whilst the clerk and the captain of the foresters chattered amiably together. The dame listened to their gossip, and put in her own word and question; she had an easy mind now and could give herself to talk of Prince John and his impudent rebellion.
"So the barons would really make him King?" asked she, round-eyed: "King of all these lands and forests?"
"Some of our barons have sworn so much," answered the forester, lightly; "but men speak best with their swords, Dame. Have you not heard of young Montfichet's doings? He has undone himself indeed--"
"Waldemar Fitzurse is behind it all, and young De Brocy," the clerk interrupted, loudly, giving him a warning glance.
The friar pointed to Robin. "'Tis the lad's cousin, and he does not know of Geoffrey Montfichet's outlawry," he whispered.
"Some say that the King will establish an assize of arms on his return from France, whereby every knight, freeholder, and burgess must
arm himself for England's defense," continued the clerk, easily. "'Tis a pretty notion, and like our King."
"There are tales about our Henry, and ballads more than enough," replied the forester, shrugging his shoulders. "Will o' th' Green knows a good one, I am told."
At the mention of the outlaw's name Robin pricked up his ears. He asked many questions concerning Master Will; and learned that he had been outlawed by Henry himself for the accidental slaying of a younger brother in a quarrel years since. Before that he had been a dutiful and loyal subject, and there were some who vowed that Master Will was as loyal now as many of Henry's barons. Will shot the King's deer, truly, but only that he might live: the others conspired against their monarch's honor, in order that their own might be increased.
The cavalcade came into sight of Gamewell Hall while still at this gossip. The night was falling and lights burned behind the embrasured windows of the castle, for such it was in truth, being embattled and surrounded properly by a moat and heavy walls.
The captain wound his horn to such purpose that the bridge was soon lowered, and the whole party began to trot over it into the wide courtyard before the hall. That it was a very magnificent place was apparent, despite the shadows.
Before the door of the hall Robin sprang lightly from his horse and ran to help his mother from her saddle with tender care; then moved to give assistance to the clerk. The latter had bundled himself to firm ground, however, and now stood stolidly expectant.
Master Montfichet--George of Gamewell, as the country folk called him mostly--had come down to greet his guests, and was waiting upon them ere Robin could turn about. The Squire was an old man, with white hair curling from under a little round cap. He wore long black robes, loose and rather monkish in their fashion. He seemed as unlike his sister as Robin could well imagine, besides being so much more advanced in years. His face was hairless and rather pale; but his eyes shone brightly. There was a very pleasant expression in the lines about his mouth, and his manner was perfect. He embraced Robin with kindliness; and real affection for his sister seemed to underlie his few words of welcome. To the Friar of Copmanhurst he was so courteous
and respectful that Robin began to wonder whether he himself had ever properly regarded the clerk in the past. If so great a man should bow to him, what ought Robin to do? Robin remembered that he had often ventured to rally and tease this good-natured master who had taught him his letters.
The Squire bade them follow him, so soon as their horses and baggage had been duly given over to the servants and he had heard the forester's complaint against the outlaws. The Squire made little comment, but frowned.
At the conclusion of the captain's report, they came into the hall, lighted by a thousand fat tapers.
"Sister Nell--do you please dismiss us," said the Squire, in his courtly way, after he had signed to some waiting-maids to take charge of Mistress Fitzooth. "I will lead Robin to his chamber myself, and show him the arrangement we have made for his stay at Gamewell. Supper will be served us here in less than an hour. Father, your apartments shall be near my own. Come with me, also."
In the room allotted to him Robin found new and gay clothes laid out upon a fair, white bed, with a little rush mat beside it. A high latticed window looked out upon the court, and there was a bench in the nook, curiously carven and filled with stuffs and naperies the like of which Robin had never seen before.
The walls were hung with tapestries, and very fierce and amazing were the pictures embroidered upon them. The ceiling was low and raftered with polished beams. Behind the door was a sword suspended by a leathern belt.
"For you, kinsman," the Squire had said, smilingly.
Robin lost no time in doffing his green jerkin and hose, and then he washed himself and eagerly essayed his new habiliments. When the sword had been buckled on, our young hero of Locksley felt himself equal to Will o' th' Green or any other gallant in Christendom.
He strode along the corridors and found his way back to the great hall. There the Master of Gamewell and his mother awaited him. Mistress Fitzooth's eyes shone approvingly, and Robin slipped his fingers into hers.
"I'll build a castle as fine as this, Mother mine, one of these days,"
[paragraph continues] Robin told her: and he began to ask Master Montfichet questions as to the number of claims-at-law that he must have won in order to hold so splendid a domain. The Squire smilingly told him that the King had given Gamewell to him as a reward for valor in battle many years agone.
"Then will I fight for the King," cried Robin, with flashing eyes, "so that I may win my father Broadweald and all the lands of it."
"And I will teach you, Robin: be sure of that," said old George Montfichet. "But your sword must be swung for the right King, harkee. Not for rebellious princes will we cry to arms; but for him whom God hath placed over us--Henry the Angevin."
"Amen," murmured the clerk, fervently. "Let law and order be respected always."
"It may mean much to you, Friar," said Montfichet. "Young John has the Priory of York under his hands."
"He has not fingers upon Sherwood, and we are free of it!" cried the clerk. Then he hastily corrected himself. "We hermits can have no fear, since we have no wealth. Happy then the man with naught to lose, and who has a contented mind."
"I will be free of Sherwood Forest, Father, if that boon shall wait upon my archery. Master Will, the robber, swore that if I beat him, sir"--he had turned his bright face to old Gamewell's--"I should go free of the greenwood. And I will win the right."
"'Tis scarcely Will's to grant," frowned the Squire; "yet, in a way, he has control of the forest. It is a matter which I will look to, since the Sheriff seems so fearful of him," he added, significantly.