The Sheriff having failed to ensnare Robin Hood, and Master Simeon having done so little better, it became clear that a more wise person than either must attempt the business. The demoiselle Marie had recovered from her fit of anger, and announced her intention of showing them both how such an affair should be approached. To this end she employed herself in archery and won some accomplishment in the sport; then she caused Master Fitzwalter's house to be searched thoroughly and any writings of his to be brought to her.
Mistress Monceux engaged her fingers next in a pretty schooling, teaching them to hold a pen as awkwardly as might Master Fitzwalter himself. So she produced at last a writing purporting to come from him to Maid Marian, his daughter. She wrote it simply and in few words:--
"This to my dear child Marian, from her affectionate father, Henry Fitzwalter, now in the Court of St. James, in London town. I send you all greetings, and am well both in mind and spirit. I pray God that He has kept you as jealously in my long absence from home. This is to tell you, dear heart, that, after all, I shall return to Nottingham, mayhap very soon, and that you are to provide accordingly. I have had tidings of you given to me by my lord Bishop of Hereford, and now send you this by the hand of his man, who returns to Nottingham on other business of my lord's. I pray you to remain closely in Nottingham during my absence.
"(Signed) FITZWALTER, Warden of the City Gates.
"The twenty-fifth day of August, 1188."
The demoiselle Marie had made several attempts before she had succeeded in producing a letter so entirely to her satisfaction; and when she had sealed the above with the Fitzwalter arms and had addressed it, she felt such a glow of pride in it that she could scarce bring herself to part with the missive.
At length she bade one of her maids fetch Master Simeon to her. When, all delighted, he stood before her, his love handed him the note,
"Take this, dear fool," said she, kindly, "and bring it to the hand of the maid Fitzwalter. She is with the outlaws in Barnesdale, hidden in one of their deeps, no doubt. I care not how you give it to her so long as you are speedy."
"I will send it by the hand of Roger, your father's cook. He is well acquainted with their hiding places."
"That would be to spoil my plot at its outset," Marie answered, cuttingly. "Gather your wandering wits, and bethink you of some more likely messenger. Have you not someone in this town who can be trusted?"
"I have the very man for it," suddenly cried Carfax. "There is a young knight, one who hath been exiled by the King for plotting with Prince John. He is the only son of our fiery neighbor Montfichet. He hath done secret work for the Prince, and will do it again if he believes that he hath need for it."
"You are forever employed in doubtful business," said Marie, crossly. "I do not like your fiddling with Prince John. You may be sure that Richard will succeed to the throne; and then we shall see where your plottings have brought you."
"Richard hath already succeeded," said Carfax, whisperingly. "I had the news but an hour since. Old Henry of Angevin is King no more--he is dead. And Richard, Cur de Lion, as the commoners do call him, hath gone to Palestine, all unknowing that he is King!"
"So you think that John may seize the throne?" sneered Marie Monceux, unconvinced. "Let it be, I tell you, Simeon. In any case we must destroy these outlaws of Sherwood or they will destroy us. If they be not exterminated by the end of this year my father will cease to be Sheriff.
"May the Lord forbid!" cried Carfax, startled.
"Ay, and we shall be poor folk, Simeon, unworthy of you, no doubt. But that is not yet. Take this note, and send it how you will so long as it comes to this girl's hands within two days."
Carfax accepted the charge; and went into the lodgings of one who had entered the town within the last few hours--none other, indeed, than Geoffrey de Montfichet, who had brought Master Simeon the startling news of the King's sudden death.
Geoffrey perceived that he might openly show himself now if the Sheriff would but ignore the dead King's decree of exile passed upon him. He was sounding Carfax in the matter, and the wily go-between was temporizing in his usual way--trying to make some gain to himself out of one or the other of them.
"If you will but carry this letter to Mistress Fitzwalter, who is with thy cousin Robin Fitzooth in Barnesdale, Sir Knight," said Simeon, plausibly, "you will win the gratitude of the Sheriff's daughter, at the least; and she doth rule the roost here, as I can tell you. 'Tis but a letter from Master Fitzwalter to his child."
"I know the woods and will take the note," Geoffrey said. "See to it that Monceux does not move against me."
"His girl will tie his hands, if need be," grinned Carfax. "Ay, she can drive us all. God speed you, Sir Knight."
* * *
It fell out that whilst Robin was walking alone near the highroad to York, close to that very bridge whereon he had fought with Little John, he perceived a smart stranger dressed in scarlet and silk. Just as Robin espied this gay gentleman and was marvelling at his daring in walking these woods so coolly, unattended by squire or guard, the knight deftly fitted an arrow to his bow, and with a clever shot brought down a fine stag.
"Well hit," cried Robin, who could never abstain from admiration of a good bowman. "You have used your bow full well, Sir Knight."
The scarlet knight turned towards Robin, and, taking him for some husbandman or hind, called out in high tones, asking how he dared to speak to his betters in that insolent way.
"How is one to know one's betters, Sir Knight?" queried Robin, cheerfully. "A noble is not always known by his dress, but rather by his manners and his deeds."
"Your insolence shall be well paid for," returned the other, putting by his bow and drawing his sword. Without further argument he approached Robin angrily, and struck at him with meaning.
Robin was too quick for him, however, and caught the blow upon the edge of his own trusty blade. After a few passes Robin feinted, and, catching the other unawares, dealt him a thwack with the flat of his blade. The scarlet stranger reeled under the blow.
"I find you are not so mean a person as I had thought," observed he, in a series of gasps. "Yet, even now, 'tis not amiss that you should have a lesson."
With that the two engaged heartily, and fought for nigh an hour, without either side gaining an advantage.
At length he succeeded in pricking Robin on the cheek.
"Hast enough, fellow?"
"A rest would be welcome," admitted Robin, with a laugh.
They called a truce and sat down side by side beneath a tree. The stranger eyed Robin thoughtfully; and Robin glanced back at him, with his suspicions slowly growing to certainty. Presently:
"You are he whom they call Robin Hood, I take it," said the stranger, "although I do not know you by such a strange name."
"It is my own name," replied the outlaw, "and I am proud of it. Are you not Geoffrey of Gamewell?"
"That was my name, Cousin, even as yours was once Robin Fitzooth, but now I call myself Will Scarlett. 'Tis a whimsey; but since Geoffrey Montfichet has a bigger price on his head than I can afford to pay, why, I have buried him under a prettier name! But tell me why you are dressed so plainly. On my life, I did not know you when first we met."
"A man should have clothes to suit his work, Cousin," argued Robin. "And 'tis a wonder to me that you should have been able to kill yon stag with such a wild color upon you. Howbeit, thy arrow was shrewd enough, and I'll say no more than to tell how well pleased I am to have fallen in with you again. Here's my hand in all true affection, Cousin Scarlett.
"And mine, Cousin Hood."
They carried the stag between them to Barnesdale; and Robin learned that his cousin had a letter with him for Marian. When Robin heard who had given it to Will Scarlett his suspicions were immediately awakened.
"However, let us give Marian the letter, and see what she may think upon it," he observed. "There cannot be much harm in that."
Thus did Mistress Monceux succeed admirably in the first part of her scheme.
* * *
Soon as Marian had had her letter she was all agog to go back into Nottingham. She showed the scroll to Robin, and though his heart misgave him he could hardly say her nay. No doubt as to the genuineness of the letter occurred to Marian: she knew her father's peculiarly awkward handwriting too well. Certainly the phrasing of it seemed a little too easy for so plain a man, yet since he had been so long in London he had, of course, acquired Court ways.
On the third week in September Marian determined to return to her old home, and take the risk of any treachery.
"Allan-a-Dale and Fennel shall go with you, dear heart," said Robin. "Why not? They can appear as your father's guests, and the two maids will help you keep house. Also Warrenton shall go as Allan's man. I can be sure that these faithful ones will guard my pretty love from all harm."
"Am I indeed your pretty love?" asked Marian, in foolish happiness; "are you sure that you would not have some other maid--to wit, the demoiselle Marie? She hath an eye for you, as I know--for all she seemeth so much our enemy. Trust a woman for finding out another woman's secret!"
Mistress Fennel was not loth to leave the greenwood. In the summer months the life was none too bad a one, but now that September mists and rains were upon Barnesdale, the young wife shivered and complained. "Hereford is the only one we need fear, after all," Allan admitted; "your old baron would never look for us in Nottingham."
"And the Bishop is in London," said Marian, showing her letter. "See what my father saith."
Therefore Robin and his men were left to their own devices in the matter of cooking and kitchen work soon as September's third week had come and gone. Allan-a-Dale, Warrenton, the two girls and their two maids, all travelled into Nottingham on the best horses that the outlaws could provide, under escort so far as Gamewell. They were secretly watched into the town, that Robin might be sure no one attempted any treachery.
It was arranged that Allan should come himself to Gamewell, and seek the Squire's friendship on some near occasion. Then he might tell the old man about Marian and how she had left his roof.
Montfichet would not be vexed with her, Marian felt. If he were, she would come herself, and coax him. Also either Allan or Warrenton would find means to send Robin news of the household, and tell him whether Fitzwalter returned as the latter promised.
So all safeguards that wit could devise were taken, and Robin, having kissed her little fingers very tenderly, left Marian with her cortège upon the road by Gamewell, and having satisfied himself that all had gained safe entrance to Nottingham, journeyed back to the caves at Barnesdale with quiet mien. His heart told him to suspect some evil plot--yet where could he find one? Scarlett, his own cousin, had brought the letter, and Marian had recognized the writing.
Oh, how dull the caves and the woods seemed without her! Tuck and the miller had employed themselves in cooking them all a royal dinner; and Stuteley tried his best to lighten the gloom. Robin laughed with them, and sought to hide his grief, feeling it to be unmanly.
But never had he enjoyed a feast so little in the free woods as this one. Good food and good company he had, but not that salt with which to savor them--a merry heart.