One bright morning in May a slim, straight youth, slightly bearded, dressed in a green suit, with bow unstrung, and a fresh color blowing on his cheeks, came out of the wood upon the highroad by Copmanhurst.
He stood erect, quietly alert, and with his brown eyes watchful of the road. He then moved softly along the road until he came to where but last year the brook had sprawled and scrambled across it. Now a fine stone bridge had been built, at the word of Prince John, who had complained much at having wetted his feet when he had passed by St. Dunstan's shrine eight months agone.
The stranger smiled as he looked at the bridge, half-sadly, half in reverie. He paused to admire the neat work; then slowly walked over the bridge still thinking deeply. Suddenly he plumped himself right into the arms of a tall, ungainly man, who had crossed from the other side.
The youth sprang back; then planted his little body exactly in the center of the bridge.
"Give way, fellow," roared the other, instantly. "Make room for your betters, or I will throw you into the brook!"
The younger man laughed. "I know this little stream right well, friend. Therefore I have no need to make that closer acquaintance of it which you promise."
"You may be acquainted and yet make better acquaintance," returned his big opponent, stirring not an inch. "This bridge is too narrow for us both. One must go back."
"Go back then, friend, by all means. I will not stay you."
"Now will I trounce you right well, stripling," cried the tall man, grasping his cudgel. He made a pass or two with it about the head of the youth.
The latter jumped back and fitted an arrow to his bow.
"Nay, by my body, but this is ungenerous of you, forester," cried the tall man. "I have only a stick and you have a bow! If we are to fight, surely you might fight fairly."
Again the youth laughed brightly. "Nay, by my inches, friend," replied he, "but how can we fight fairly with staves when you are so much the bigger?"
"Cut yourself a longer cudgel, friend," retorted the big fellow.
The youth threw down his bow, and, opening a knife which hung at his waist, went forthwith towards the nearest bush. He cut himself a stout ash staff and fell to trimming it deftly.
When it was complete he came coolly up to his foe.
"Make ready, friend," said he, giving his cudgel a twirl. "Now take tune from me. One, two--"
"Three!" roared the giant, smiting at him instantly.
The fight was a long one, for the youth had such skill and so ready a guard that the other but wasted his anger on him. This "stripling" jumped from one side to the other so lightly and unexpectedly, and parried each thrust so surely, that presently the giant relaxed a little from the fury of his onslaught. Then the youth ran in and gave him such a crack as to make the welkin ring.
"By my life, but you can hit hard! " cried the giant, dropping his stick that he might rub his pate. "For so small a man that was a right hearty blow." He picked up his stick again. "Fall to, spitfire. I am ready!"
They sparred for a minute longer, and then the giant had his chance. He caught the jumping youth so sound a thwack as to send him flying over the low parapet of the bridge far into the bubbling brook. "How now, spitfire? Have you had enough?"
"Marry, that have I," spluttered his antagonist, trying to scramble out of the rushing water. Then he became dizzy again, and fell back with a little cry.
The big man vaulted down to his help, and plucked his foe to the bank. There he laid him down on the grassy sward and fell to bathing
his brows with handfuls of fresh water till the youth opened his eyes again.
"Friend," said the stripling, gravely, sitting up, "You dealt me that blow most skilfully. Tell me your name."
"Why," said the giant, a little awkwardly, "as for the blow, 'twas but an undercut that I know well. My name is John Little Nailor."
"You are anything but little, friend," answered the youth, struggling to his feet. "And now I will give you my name also." He put a horn to his lips at this and blew a strange, shrill note.
Forthwith the greenwood was alive with men, all dressed in grass-colored clothes like the youth's. They swarmed about him, full two score and ten of them. One of them, a little man, having eyed the stranger askance, gave a signal to the others to seize him; but the youth forbade this. "The fight was a fair one, friends, and the right of this bridge belongs for the moment to Master John Little Nailor. Take your rights, friend," he went on, turning to the giant, "and go upon your way."
"In a manner, stripling, you have now the better of this adventure, and yet do forbear," returned Master Nailor. "Wherefore I like you well, and would ask again your name."
"Tell him, Will," commanded the youth.
The little man, stepping up to the giant impudently, then announced his master. "Know, fellow, that this is none other than a dead man-a wraith, indeed! At least, so saith Master Monceux, the lord Sheriff of Nottingham. This is Robin Fitzooth."
"Then I am right sorry that I beat you," answered Master Nailor. "And had I known you at the first your head would now be whole and your body unbruised. By my inches, but I would like to join with you and your company."
"Enter our company, then, John Little; and be welcome. The rites are few; but the fee is large: for we shall ask unswerving loyalty of you, and you must give a bond that you will be faithful even unto death."
"I give the bond, with all my soul, and on my very life," cried the tall man.
"Master," said the little man, who was none other than our friend Stuteley, "surely we cannot consent to welcome this fellow amongst us
having such a name? Harkee, John Little," he continued, turning to the giant, "take your new name from me, since you are to be of our brotherhood. I christen you Little John!"
At this small jest the merry men laughed long and loud.
"Give him a bow and find a full sheath for our friend Little John, Warrenton," said Robin, joyfully. "And hurry, friends, for surely it is the moment when our first new defiance of Master Monceux is to be made? Fall back into the woods speedily; and bide my signal. Little John, we now will try you. Stand out on the bridge path you have just won from me and parley with those who are coming along the road from York. Speak loudly that I may hear what answers you win."
He gave a signal, and at once all disappeared even as they had come, swiftly and silently. Warrenton and Stuteley placed themselves low down behind bushes of white thorn. Warrenton, who had given his quiver to Little John, now produced a great bag from under a bush; and took out of it a dozen or more long smocks such as shepherds wear. Hastily Robin and Stuteley attired themselves as hinds, and the old retainer gave them each a crook to hold. He explored again his stores under the bushes, and dragged out a fat buck, freshly killed and ready spitted for the fire.
Robin and those of the freemen who were now attired in this simple garb helped to pull the deer to the edge of the road; and, hastily making a fire, they soon had their meat cooking merrily. Little John eyed them askew, but made no offer to question them. He had recognized Robin by a sign which the other had given to him.
Meanwhile the noise of a small company nearing them became more evident; and presently seven horsemen turned a bend of the road. Their leader was a stout and haughty-looking man clothed in episcopal garments, and so soon as he spied these shepherds he spurred his horse until he came level with them.
Then he drew bridle sharply, and addressed himself to Little John.
"Who are these, fellow, that make so free with the King's deer?" he asked, mildly, as one who wishes first to believe the best of every man.
"These are shepherds, Excellence," answered Little John.
"Heaven have mercy! They seem more like to be robbers o' th' greenwood at first glance," said the priest.
"One must not judge on half-hearing or half-seeing, lording," retorted Little John.
"That is true, but I would question you further, good man. Tell me now who has killed this deer, and by what right?" His tones had passed insensibly to an arrogant note.
"Give me first your name, Excellence, so that I may know I speak where 'tis fitting," said Little John, stubbornly.
"This is my lord the Bishop of Hereford, fellow," said one of the guards, fiercely. "Keep a civil tongue in your head, or 'twill surely be bad for you!"
Robin now came forward. "My lord," said he, bowing his curly head before the Bishop, I did hear your questions, and will answer them in all truth. We are but simple shepherds, and tend our flocks year in and year out about the forest of Sherwood, but, this being our holiday, we thought there would be small harm in holding it upon one of the King's deer, since there are so many."
"You are saucy fellows, in sooth," cried the Bishop, "and the King shall know of your doings. Quit your roast, and come with me, for I will bring you to the Sheriff of Nottingham forthwith! Seize this knave, men, and bind his hands."
"Your pardon, Excellence--"
"No pardon shall you have of me, rascal!" snapped the stout Bishop. "Seize him, my men!"
Robin blew upon his horn a shrill, short note, and at once his freemen sprang out from behind the thornbushes and flung themselves on the bishop's guard. The good Bishop found himself a prisoner, and began to crave indulgence of the men he had been so ready to upbraid.
"Nay, we will grant you no pardon, by my beard!" said Little John, fiercely. "Lend me that sword, friend," he added, turning to Stuteley, who had taken the weapon from one of the Bishop's guards. "Right skilfully will I make this church to be without a head."
"There shall be no shedding of blood," cried Robin, interposing, "where I can stay it. Come, friends, send these fellows unto Nottingham with their legs tied under their horses' bellies. But my lord the Bishop of Hereford shall come with us unto Barnesdale!"
The unwilling prelate was dragged away cheek by jowl with the
half-cooked venison on the back of his own horse, and Robin and the band brought their guest to Barnesdale.
As soon as dusk had passed they lighted a great fire in the centre of a little hill-bordered glade, and fell to roasting the deer afresh. Another and fatter beast was set to frizzle upon the other side of the fire; and, as the night was chill, the men gathered close about their savory dinner.
The Bishop sniffed the odorous air from his place of captivity; and was nothing loth when they offered to conduct him to this fine repast. Robin bade him take the best place.
"For you must know, Excellence, that we freemen are all equal in each other's sight in this free land. Therefore we have no one whom we can specially appoint to do the honors such as your station warrants. Take, then, the seat at the head of our feast and give us grace before meat, as the occasion justifies."
The Bishop pronounced grace in the Latin tongue hastily; and then settled himself to make the best of his lot. Red wines and ales were produced and poured out, each man having a horn tankard from which to drink.
Laughter bubbled among the diners; and the Bishop caught himself smiling at more than one jest. Stuteley filled his beaker with good wine each time the Bishop emptied it; and it was not until near midnight that their guest began to show signs that he wished to leave them.
"I wish, mine host," said he, gravely, to Robin, who had soberly drunk but one cup of ale, "that you would now call a reckoning. 'Tis late, and I fear the cost of this entertainment may be more than my poor purse will permit to me."
"Wily, there," answered Robin, as if perplexed, "this is a matter in which I am in your lordship's hands, for never have I played tavern-keeper till now."
"I will take the reckoning, friends," said Little John, interposing. He went into the shade and brought out the bishop's steed, then unfastened from the saddle a small bag. Someone gave him a cloak; and, spreading it upon the ground, Little John began to shake the contents of the Bishop's moneybag upon it.
Bright golden pieces tumbled out and glittered in the pale moonlight;
while my lord of Hereford watched with wry face. Stuteley and Warrenton counted the gold aloud.
"Three hundred and two pennies are there, Master," cried Stuteley. "Surely a good sum!"
"'Tis strange," said Robin, musingly, "but this is the very sum that I was fain to ask of our guest."
"Nay, nay," began the Bishop, hastily, "this is requiting me ill indeed. Did I not deal gently with your venison, which after all is much more the King's venison than yours? Further, I am a poor man."
"You are the Bishop of Hereford," said Robin, "and so can well afford to give in charity this very sum. Who does not know of your hard dealings with the poor and ignorant? Have you not amassed your wealth by less open but more cruel robbery than this? Who speaks a good word for you or loves you, for all you are a Bishop? You have put your heels on men's necks; and have been always an oppressor., greedy and without mercy. For all these things we take your money now, to hold it in trust and will administer it properly and in God's name. There is an end of the matter, then, unless you will lead us in a song to show that a better spirit is come unto your body. Or mayhap you would sooner trip a measure
"Neither the one nor the other will I do," snarled the Bishop.
Robin made Stuteley a sign and Will brought his master a harp: whereupon Robin sat himself cross-legged beside the fire and twanged forth a lively tune.
Warrenton and most of the men began forthwith to dance; and Stuteley, seizing the Bishop by one hand, commenced to hop up and down. Little John, laughing immoderately, grasped the luckless Bishop by the other hand, and between the two of them my lord of Hereford was forced to cut some queer capers.
The moon flung their shadows fantastically upon the sward, and the more their guest struggled the more he was compelled to jump about. Robin put heart into his playing, and laughed with the loudest of them.
At last, quite exhausted, the Bishop sank to the ground.
Little John seized him then like a sack of wood, and flung him across the back of his horse. Rapidly they led the beast across the uneven
ground until the highroad was reached, the whole of the band accompanying them, shouting and jesting noisly. The Bishop of Hereford, more dead than alive, was then tied to his horse and the animal headed for Nottingham.
"'Tis the most and the least that we can do for him," said Robin, gleefully. "Give you good night, lording! A fair journey to you! Deliver our respectful homage to Master Monceux and to the rest of law-abiding Nottingham! Come now, Little John, you have borne yourself well this day; and for my part I willingly give the right to be of this worshipful company of free men. What say you, friends all?"
The giant was admitted by acclamation, and then all went back noisily into that hiding place in Barnesdale which had defied both the ferret eyes of lean-faced Simeon Carfax and the Norman archer Hubert.
The Sheriff of Nottingham learned next day that Sherwood had not been purged of its toll collectors, as he had so fondly hoped.