Days passed into weeks and weeks into months, and Robin Hood was still to seek. The Sheriff waged an intermittent warfare with him, scoring a few minor successes; then Robin moved himself and his men farther afield. Many of the Nottingham apprentices and other roving spirits joined when they might with Robin and his band.
Arthur-à-Bland, the tanner, who had so nearly won the Sheriff's prize, had often in these days envious thoughts for the outlaws in their free life. Anything was better, to his mind, than oak bark and ditch water and the smell of half-tanned hides. Also he was ambitious to beat Robin at his own game. By dint of perseverance Arthur had once come very nigh to emulating that masterly feat of archery by which Robin had wrested the purse of gold and the Arab horse from him. Vastly elated at this promise of success, the tanner had flung down his trade and had marched off towards Barnesdale, armed with his bow and a long pikestaff. He strode across the close turf, browning now under an August sun, and was soon far away from the highroad and the small protection it afforded. Hie espied a herd of deer, and prepared himself to shoot one of them. Just as his bow was bent Robin came out of the bushes on his left hand; and, not noticing the tanner, the young outlaw began to move stealthily round to the windward side of the beasts in order that they might make a fairer mark for his arrows.
"What makes you here so like a thief, gossip?" enquired Arthur-à-Bland, arrogantly. "I am a keeper in this forest, and it is my duty to stay you.
"Have you any assistants, friend?" Robin asked, scarcely glancing towards him. "For it is not one man alone who will stop me."
"Truly, gossip," cried Arthur, "I have no better assistant than this good oak-graff; but he will do all that I want. For your sword and your arrows I care not one straw--if I can get but a knock at your poll you will ask me no further question."
Robin unbuckled his belt at this; and, flinging his bow upon the ground, tore down a young sapling that was growing nearby. With his dagger he quickly lopped it into shape; and then strode up to the tanner.
"Eight foot and a half, and 'twill knock down a calf," sang Arthur, flourishing his staff still more, "and I hope it will knock down you."
Robin sparred with him for a little, and then, making a sudden feint, bestowed such a blow on Master Bland that the blood ran down his cheek from his broken pate.
But the tanner did not accept this favor without making some return, and soon was giving Robin as good as he gave. The wood rang with the noise of their blows, and the tanner laid on his strokes as if he were beating hides.
"Hold your hand," cried Robin, at last. "You have done enough, and I will make you free of these woods."
"Why, God-a-mercy," said Arthur, "I may thank my staff for that, good fellow; not you."
"Well, well, gossip, let that be as it may. But ere we continue, tell me your name and trade, at the least. I fain would know who 'tis who hath beaten me so well."
"I am a tanner, gossip," replied Arthur, jovially now, "and by my soul, if you will come to my pits I will tan your hide for naught."
"In sooth you have already done me that service," said Robin, ruefully. "But, harkee, if you will leave your tan-pots and come with me, as sure as my name is Robin Hood, you shall not want gold or fee."
"If you be Robin Hood," said Arthur, "then I am Arthur-à-Bland; and I have come to live with you and my cousin Little John, in the free woods of Barnesdale. That is, if you will have me."
"I have already given you freedom of the woods, and you shall see what welcome Little John can offer," answered Robin. "But tell me,
friend, are you not that archer who so nearly won the Sheriff's horse from me in Nottingham town?"
The tanner acknowledged himself to be the man, and since Robin put it so handsomely to him he forgot all his hard thoughts about the defeat. They joined hands in friendship and went together to find Little John, who seemed right glad to find his cousin ready to join the band.
The day was spent in the usual free and happy manner. And when time for supper came round with the dusk Robin asked Little John for the name and style of their guest at supper this night. "For," said Robin, "you must have got me at least a bishop, a baron, or a knight, or some squire from the north country, to meet our new comrade tonight."
"We have no guest, Master," answered Little John, regretfully.
"Then have I no stomach for my supper," Robin cried. "Go you at once, Little John, and you, Stuteley, and you also, Much, and find us such a guest, worthy of our company, and well able to pay for the pleasure of it."
"Where may they find so desirable a man?" asked the little ferret Midge, eagerly.
"Go into Watling Street," Robin told them. "At this time o' th' year there are many people passing that way."
"May Heaven send us a guest speedily," said Arthur-à-Bland, "for I am growing wondrous hungry."
The three outlaws started off at once and in high spirits, the adventure being one much to their liking. They had scarcely watched the great highroad known to all as Watling Street (and which runs from Dover in Kent to Chester town) for many minutes, when they espied a knight riding by in a very forlorn and careless manner. One foot was in the stirrups, the other out; his visor was raised above his eyes, and his face was pinched and woebegone.
Little John approached the stranger and bade him stay; for who can judge of a man's wealth by his looks? The outlaw saluted the knight courteously and informed him that his master was fasting, having waited supper for him a full three hours.
The knight reined in his sorry steed, and glanced toward his questioner with lacklustre eye. Little John repeated his speech.
"And who is your master?" asked the knight then.
"None other than Robin Hood, of Barnesdale," Little John returned, laying his great hand on the knight's bridle. "He bids us speed you to the feast."
Seeing the other two, the knight shrugged his shoulders.
"'Tis clear that this is an invitation which will brook no refusal," he said. "So I will go with you, friends."
When they were returned to Barnesdale, Robin saluted the knight very magnificently; and his horse having been cared for, all sat down to a plentiful supper of venison, pheasants, and various small birds.
After partaking liberally of the good cheer, the knight brightened up considerably and declared that he had not enjoyed so good a meal for nigh three weeks; and he vowed that if ever Robin and his comrades should come to his country he would entertain them with an equally worthy and honorable repast.
This was not, however, the exact payment which Robin had intended. He thanked the knight, therefore, and reminded him that a yeoman like himself might hardly offer such a supper to a knight as a gift of charity.
"I have no money, Master Hood, nevertheless," answered the knight, frankly. "I have so little of this world's goods in sooth that I should be ashamed to offer that which I have."
"Money, however little, always finds a welcome from us," said Robin, smiling. "Will you deem me too impertinent, Sir Knight, if I ask what moneys you have?"
"I have, of my own, ten silver pennies," said the knight. "Here they are, and I wish they were a hundred times as many." He handed Little John his pouch; and the big fellow soon had knowledge of its contents. It was as the knight said, no more nor less.
Robin filled his guest a bumper of wine, and made a sign for Little John to hand back the pouch.
"Pledge me, Sir Knight," cried the merry outlaw, "and pledge me heartily, for these be sorry times. I see that your armor is bent and that your clothes are worn. Tell me now, were you a yeoman and made a knight by force? Or have you been bad steward to yourself and wasted
your property in lawsuits and the like? Be not bashful with me, we shall not betray your secrets."
"I am a Norman knight in my own right; and I have always lived a sober and quiet life," the sorrowful knight replied. "My father, and his father, and his father's father were all knights of the King; but, as is often the case, friend Robin, rich men sometimes find their riches fly away from them. Until within this last year I have contrived, by dint of care and labor, to live on the few hundreds of rent and the like which fall to me year by year; but now I have only these ten pennies of silver and my wife and children three."
Robin asked how his moneys had gone from him.
"I lost them through misfortune and naught else," the knight declared, sighing. "I have a son--a good youth--who, when he was but twenty years of age, could play prettily in jousts and tournaments and other knightly games. He had the ill luck to push his sports too far; and did kill a knight of Lancashire in a battle à outrance. To save my boy I had to sell my lands and mortgage my estates; and this not being enough, in the end I have had to borrow money from my lord of Hereford."
"A most worthy Bishop," said Robin, ironically; "I know him well."
"He seemeth to be a hard man in law," said the knight; "and since I cannot pay him the four hundred pieces he has promised to foreclose his mortgage on our home."
"Have you not any friends who would become a surety for you, Sir Knight?" queried Robin, thoughtfully.
"None. My friends have fallen away from me in mine adversity as leaves from an autumn tree."
"Fill your goblet again, Sir Knight," Robin commanded; and he turned to whisper a word in Marian's ear. She nodded, and beckoned Little John and Much the Miller to her side.
"Here is health and prosperity to you, gallant Robin," the knight said, tilting his goblet, "and my best thanks for your cheer. Would that I might make better recompense."
The two outlaws, with Mistress Marian, had now consulted the others, and all seemed to be agreed. Warrenton, as treasurer to the
band, was sent into one of the inner caves, and presently returned, bearing a bag of gold. He counted it out before the knight; and there were four times one hundred golden pieces.
"Take this loan from us, Sir Knight, and pay your debt to the Bishop," Robin told him. "Nay, no thanks; you are but exchanging creditors. Mayhap we shall not be so hard on you as was the Christian Bishop; yet again, we may be harder. Who can say, where human nature is concerned?"
Much now appeared, dragging a bale of cloth. "The knight should have a suit worthy of his rank, Master, do you not think?"
"Measure him twenty ells of it," Robin ordered.
"Give him your Arab horse also," whispered Marian; "it is a gift which will come back to you fourfold, for this is a worthy man. My father doth know him well."
So the horse was given also, and Robin bade Arthur-à-Bland ride as esquire to the knight; to be good use and to fulfil his first duty as one of the band.
The knight was sorrowful no longer. He could scarcely voice his thanks to them; and was nigh overcome when time for his departure came round on the following morning.
"God save you, comrades," said he, with deep feeling in his tones, "and give me a grateful heart."
"We shall wait for you twelve months from today, here in this place," said Robin, smiling cheerfully. "And then you will repay us for the loan of the gold."
"I shall return it to you within a year," replied the knight, firmly. "So sure as I am Sir Richard of the Lee, the money shall be returned, with interest beside. Look for me in the early days of March, friends, for then I expect to have good news of my son."
"Then, or later, Sir Knight, as you will," said Robin.