When they had reached the little hut nearby the pleasance, Robin bade her stay. "I now must play Yellow Lady," said he, lightly. "She is the spirit of this grove, and under her guise I can venture near to the house. Lend me your cloak--the color will not matter on so dark a night."
"I will not be left alone here," said Marian at this, with great decision. "Not for all the Montfichets in Christendom. I'll go with you."
They crossed the pleasance side by side. Lights burned within Gamewell to guide them.
"I am not afraid, Robin," announced Master Gilbert of Blois, courageously. "You know I am no coward."
"Take my hand then," said Robin; "I like to feel that you are with me."
"Yet you have but known me a day," said Marian, trying to peep at him. Her tone was questioning and full of pretty malice.
He had a mind then to take her in his arms, but again forbore. "Be silent now," whispered he; "I must proclaim myself. I have scarce knowledge of the servants here, my chief friend being old Warrenton, and he is in the greenwood."
"Let us go back there," suggested his companion; "I am willing to risk the wild beasts and the Sheriff's wrath."
"'Tis no place for you," said Robin. "Here you will be both safe and comfortable."
"I do not like the shape of this house," argued Marian. "I do not feel that I will be happy in it."
"It is a home worthy to be your sister's, let alone yours, Master Gilbert. Now be done with your grumbling, for here you shall stay until your father's return."
At this she made a grimace, but obeyed him meekly, notwithstanding. As they drew near to the courtyard, Robin bade her follow him cautiously until they had made a full circle of it, and crept round to the front of the hall.
By good fortune the bridge was down. Old Gamewell had no fear of the world, it would seem. They might pretend now that they had crossed to the hall from the road. Robin wound his horn suddenly and confidently.
The dogs within Gamewell began to bark and growl, and presently they heard sounds of approach. In a moment more the doors were opened and they saw a servant armed with a lanthorn and a stick.
"I would have audience with Master Montfichet," said Robin, in a bold voice. "Pray take me to him at once."
"Do you come from Nottingham?" asked the man, civilly.
"I left there this day," replied Robin.
"Follow me," said the servant, briefly. He waited until they were safely inside; then closed the doors carefully. He led them across the court to the inner doors.
Here another fellow was in waiting, also carrying a light. "These are travellers from Nottingham, desiring audience of Master Gamewell," observed the first servant.
"Your names, gentles?" asked the second.
"I am Robin o' th' Hood, and this is Master Gilbert of Blois," said Robin, at once.
They were escorted into the great hall, and there, sat beside the open hearth, was old Squire George. He made a pathetic figure. Robin felt his heart go out to him.
Yet even when he had satisfied himself in a single glance as to the identity of one of the late-coming guests, Montfichet gave no sign. His was a strange nature, and he could not forgive Robin his innocent deceit.
"Sir," said Robin, respectfully, "I do feel shame in coming before
you without waiting for your word of welcome. My errand must be my excuse."
"'Tis Robin Fitzooth!" said old Montfichet, then. "I was told that you had been killed long since."
"Robin Fitzooth is truly dead, sir. Behold in his place Robin o' th' Hood. I come to ask a service at your hands for the memory of this dead man, and in redemption of your promise given to him once in Nottingham."
"Ask it, friend."
The Squire's tones were kinder. Looking at him, Robin saw that he had aged. There were no longer signs of that fastidious attention to his apparel which had characterized Montfichet of Gamewell.
"There is, sir, a maid who, losing her father on a journey to London, hath had great trouble put upon her by the Sheriff. Monceux would persecute her, in short, and she has flown from the city. Now, I would ask an asylum for her here."
"She shall be made welcome and given full freedom of Gamewell," answered Montfichet, rising. "I shall rejoice to see her here, in sooth, for my days lack company. When will you bring her to me, Master Robin o' th' Hood, and pray what makes you wear so strange a name?"
He spoke quite in his old manner, and half-smiled at them. He glanced toward Master Gilbert of Blois. "Is this your little esquire, young Stuteley?" asked he, lifting his brows. "Truly he has grown out of all memory."
Robin felt himself to be in an awkward fix. His eyes glanced from one to the other. Marian, at last, took pity on his distress. "Good my lord," said she, with that pretty shake of her dark curls, "I am the maid for whom Master Robin pleads so earnestly. I am Marian Fitzwalter out of her petticoats and into a boy's clothes. I had no other way of flying from Nottingham, so behold me for the nonce as Gilbert of Blois."
The Squire listened, and slowly his face relaxed. Anything spirited or daring always appealed to him strongly. "You are a pretty page, I swear, Master Gilbert! Sure it will be hard for you to make fairer maid than man. Welcome either way to Gamewell. I'll keep you safe from
[paragraph continues] Monceux; I have no love for him in any case. You have fasted today, no doubt; I'll have supper brought us here."
"We have already supped, sir," said Robin, relieved to find this easy way out of a difficult business. He had the hope that Marian would in some way bring about a reconciliation between him and the Squire.
"We will sup a second time," said Montfichet. "Ho there! Bring us a pasty and a flagon! Hurry, knaves, bring us the best of our larder. Come, Robin, sit here at my right hand, and you, Gilbert, by his side. And so already it has come to this, Robin? Will not the greenwoods seem dull tomorrow?"
"Mayhap I might change them for a seat at your table on occasion, sir?" asked Robin.
"To see how badly I treat my guest? Is that it? Come when you will, Robin o' th' Hood. Tell me now, why did you choose this name? Another was offered you."
"Ask Master Gilbert here, sir--he is responsible for't. And, honestly, I do like the name--'tis uncommon. May I pledge you, sir? Here's to our friendship! May we grow old in it and ripe in it!"
"I have no wish, Robin, to grow either old or ripe," said Marian, settling herself. "Let us eat first, and make our speeches afterward. Help me to the pasty before you, and do not chatter so much."
Squire George nodded in approval. "Spoken like a man," cried he. "Robin is too full of words tonight. Ay, but I am right glad to see him here, for all that! Fill your glass, kinsman, and the lady's. Nay, look not so distressed at her; up to the top, man, up to the top! This is no time for half-measures.
* * *
In the morning when Robin came blithely from his bed--the first bed that he had known for many months--he found the Squire waiting for him in the hall. His face was grave. "I must speed you, Robin," said he; "I have news that Monceux is abroad, and will attack your company at Barnesdale.
Robin had told him all, and the Squire had neither approved nor disapproved. Working in his mind was jealous wonderment that Robin should prefer such a life to that which might have been his at Gamewell. The Squire made no show of this, however.
"I will guard Mistress Fitzwalter from all harm, rely upon me. And go, since you must. Here is our Master Gilbert--Gilbert no more. I should scarcely have known her."
Marian entered from the other end of the hall. The maids had found her a dress, grey-blue as her eyes. She bloomed like an early rose on this sweet spring morning.
"And you are going to leave me, Robin?" she said, mournfully.
The Squire had disappeared. Robin, approaching, took her hand. He looked up from it, and saw the golden arrow gleaming in her hair--that arrow which had so strangely marked the beginning of his troubles. Marian smiled, and her eyes invited him.
And so these two kissed each other frankly, mouth to mouth.
* * *
A little later Robin was speeding through the forest. His feet were light, and he sang softly to himself as he trod the springy grass.
Suddenly a sad song broke upon his ear. 'Twas a doleful song, full of tears; and Robin, in consternation, stopped short.
Along the woodland path there came towards him a minstrel carrying a harp and trailing a rope. "Marry, friend, but your harp is out of all harmony!" began Robin.
"I do not play upon it," retorted the minstrel.
"You sing a sad song," said Robin; "and I, who am happy, am put out of countenance by it. Therefore sing it not until I am far from you."
"My heart overflows with sorrow," said the minstrel, "and so I must sing of sadness and of death."
"Tell me your sorrow, friend," Robin begged, "and walk with me back upon the road. Like as not I can help you."
"I should not speak my grief to you," the minstrel told him, "for you are happy."
"One who lives in the greenwood cannot be otherwise," observed Robin. "Come, walk with me, and coil the rope."
"I had brought it," said the minstrel, "so that I might hang myself to some old oak, and thus fittingly end the wretched, misfortunate life of Allan-a-Dale."
Robin perceived that there was a story to follow. "Walk with me,
gossip, and ease your heart in confidence," he said, cheerfully. "I can likely help you. Today is my lucky day."
"Know then, happy stranger, that I have lost my dear, and through no fault of mine own," said Allan-a-Dale, as they walked together. "A wealthy baron has taken my love from me, and will marry her this very day; so I have come into these quiet woods that I may kill myself, for never can I live without my Fennel."
"Is that her name? 'Tis very quaint."
"'Tis a fitting name, gossip. Fennel means 'Worthy of all praise,' and she is the most worthy of all maids."
"Perchance you do not know many maids, friend," said Robin. "Tell me, is she dark-haired, and are her eyes sweet as violets?"
"In sooth, her eyes are blue enough, gossip," said Allan; "but her hair is like finespun gold. And she has a little straight nose, and such a tender smile. Marry, when I think upon her many perfections my heart doth leap, to sink again when I mind me that I have lost her."
"And why have you lost her, Allan-a-Dale?"
"Look you, 'tis this way. The Normans overrun us, and are in such favor that none may say them nay. This baron coveted the land wherein my love dwells; so her brother, who was lord of it, was one day found still and stark-killed whilst hunting, folks say. Thus the maid became heir-at-law, and the baron wooed her, thrusting me aside."
"Nay, but surely--" began Robin.
"Hear me out, gossip," Allan said. "You think I am light overborne, no doubt; but never should this Norman dog have triumphed had it been man to man. But who can deal with a snake in th' grass? The wretch has poisoned my Fennel against me, and 'tis she who has cast me into despair, while she is to be wedded with mine enemy."
"Does she love you, Allan?"
"Once she loved me right well. Here is the little ring which she gave me when we were betrothed."
"Enough," said Robin, "this wedding shall not be. Can you keep your own counsel? Follow me then; and on your love for Fennel, see nothing of the way in which I lead you. Hasten."
He brought the minstrel into Barnesdale woods and to their most secret haunt. Then he summoned the greenwood men and told them
first of the Sheriff's plans and then gave out the grievous story of Allan-a-Dale.
"Where is this marriage to be held?" asked Little John.
"In Plympton church," sighed the minstrel.
"Then to Plympton we will go, by my beard!" cried the giant, "and Monceux may meanwhile scour Barnesdale for us in vain! Thus virtue is plainly its own reward."
"Well planned, indeed, Little John. Fill quivers, friends, and let us go. This shall be a strange marriage day for your baron, Allan--if the lady be not stubborn. You must move her, if she be cross with you. We will do all other duties."
They travelled through one of their many secret ways towards Plympton. The sun shone high in the heavens ere they had come within sight of the small square church.
Without the building they espied a guard of ten archers liveried in scarlet and gold. Robin bade the rest to approach under cover of the hedgerows. He then borrowed Allan's cloak and harp, and stepped out boldly towards the church.
A few villagers were gathered about the archers; and Robin mingled with these, asking many quaint questions, and giving odd answers to any who asked in turn of him. Hearing the laughter and chattering, the Bishop who was to perform the marriage came to the church door all in his fine robes and looked severely forth.
"What is the meaning of this unseemliness?" asked he, in well-known tones.
Robin saw that here was my lord of Hereford again! He answered, modestly: "I am a harper, good my lord. Shall I not make a song to fit this happy day?"
"Welcome, minstrel, if such you are," said the Bishop. "Music pleases me right well, and you shall sing to us."
"I must not tune my harp nor pluck the strings in melody until the bride and bridegroom have come," Robin answered, wisely; "such a thing would bring ill fortune on us, and on them."
"You will not have long to wait," cried the Bishop, "for here they come. Stand on one side, worthy people."
He busied himself in welcome of the bridegroom--a grave old man,
dressed up very fine. The bride was clothed in white samite, and her hair shone like the sun. Her pretty eyes were dark with weeping; but she walked with a proud air, as women will who feel that they are martyring themselves for their love's sake. She had but two maids with her, roguish girls both. One held up her mistress's gown from the ground; the other carried flowers in plenty.
"Now by all the songs I have ever sung, surely never have marriage bells rung for so strange a pair!" cried Robin, boldly. He had stopped them as they were passing into the church. "Lady," he asked, "do you love this man? For if you do not then you are on your way to commit sacrilege."
"Stand aside, fool," cried the bridegroom, wrathfully.
"Do you love this man?" persisted Robin. "Speak now or never. I am a minstrel, and I know maids' hearts. Many songs have I made in their honor, and never have I found worse things in them than pride or vanity."
"I give my hand to him, minstrel, and that is enough," the girl answered at last. She made a movement towards the aisle.
"And Allan?" whispered Robin, looking straight into her eyes.
At this she gave a little gasp of fear and love, then glanced irresolutely towards the shrivelled baron. "I will not marry you!" she cried, suddenly.
Robin laughed and, dropping the harp, clapped his horn to his lips. Even as the archers sprang upon him, the greenwood men appeared.
"Mercy me!" cried out the Bishop, seeking to escape, "here are those rascal fellows who did maltreat me so in Sherwood."
The archers were prisoners everyone, and the baron too, ere my lord of Hereford had done exclaiming. Stuteley and Much pushed Allan-a-Dale forward. "This is the man, good my lord, to whom you shall marry the maid," cried Robin, flourishing his bow, "if she is willing."
"Will you marry me, dear heart?" pleaded Allan-a-Dale. "I am your true love, and the stories they told to you were all false."
"Own to it, baron!" roared Little John, shaking up the unfortunate old man. "Tell her that you did lie in your straggling beard when you said that Allan was untrue."
"Ay, ay, I spoke falsely; ay, I own to it. Have done with me, villain."
"Spare him, Little John, for the nonce. Now, my lord, marry them for us, for I am ready to sing you my song."
"They must be called in church three times by their names; such is the law," the Bishop protested.
Robin impatiently plucked the Bishop's loose gown from off his back and threw it over Little John's shoulders. The big fellow thrust himself firmly into it and stood with arms akimbo. "By the faith o' my body," cried Robin, "this cloth makes you a man!"
Little John went to the church door, and all began to laugh consumedly at him. Even the maid Fennel forgot her vexations. Seeing that she smiled, Allan opened his arms to her, and she found her way into them.
Little John called their names seven times, in case three should not be enough. Then Robin turned to the Bishop and swore that he should marry these two forthwith. The gown was given back to him, and my lord of Hereford commenced the service. He thought it more polite to obey, remembering his last experience with this madcap outlaw.
"Who gives this maid in marriage?" asked the Bishop, in due season.
'I do," said Robin, 'I give her heartily to my good friend, Allan-a-Dale, and he who takes her from him shall buy her dearly."