Robin started out early in the day towards the city. This time nothing should stay him from entering it--and finding Marian. The demoiselle Marie's plan would surely have succeeded on this day, for Robin was careless of all things but the hope of seeing his dear.
Sir Guy of Gisborne was there, however, as Robin's good angel, as we are to see, although Sir Guy had, in truth, no very merciful feelings towards the outlaw.
Robin perceived upon the highroad a very strange figure coming towards him. It seemed to be a three-legged monster at first sight, but on coming nearer one might see that 'twas really a poorly clad man, who for a freak had covered up his rags with a capul hide, nothing more nor less than the sundried skin of a horse, complete with head and tail and mane.
The skin of the horse's head made a helmet for the man; and the tail gave him the three-legged appearance.
"Good morrow, gossip," said Robin, cheerily; "by my bow and by my arrows, I could believe you to be a good archer-you have the shape of one."
The man took no offence at this greeting, but told Robin that he had lost his way and was anxious to find it again.
"By my faith, I could have believed that you had lost your wits," thought Robin, laughing quietly to himself. "What is your business, friend?" he asked, aloud; "you are dressed in strange clothes and yet seem by your speech to be of gentle blood."
"And who are you, forester, to ask me who I am?"
"I am one of the King's rangers," replied Robin; "and 'tis my part to look after the King's deer and save them from the wicked arrows of Robin Hood."
"Do you know Robin Hood?" asked the man, shrewdly eyeing him.
"That do I; and last night I heard that he would be coming alone in a certain part of this wood to meet a maid."
"Is that so indeed?" cried the man, eagerly.
"'Tis very truth," answered Robin. "And I, knowing this, am going to take him, and carry off both the girl and the reward upon his head."
"Tell me, friend, is this girl a little creature, royal-looking and very beautiful?"
"Marry, she appeared to me a very Princess," cried Robin, with enthusiasm.
"We are well met," remarked the yeoman, presently, and speaking as if come to a decision. "Now I will tell you, friend, that I am in search of Robin Hood myself, and will help you to take him. I am Sir Guy of Gisborne, and can make your fortune for you."
"And I am Robin Hood, so, prithee, make it quickly for me!" cried Robin, imprudently.
Sir Guy was not taken so much aback as Robin had hoped. Quickly he drew his sword from underneath the capul hide, and he smote at Robin full and foul.
Robin parried the thrust with his own true blade, and soon they were at a fierce contest. They fought by the wayside for a long while in a deadly anger, only the sharp clashing of their blades breaking the silence.
Then Robin stumbled over the projecting root of a tree; and Sir Guy, who was quick and heavy with his weapon, wounded Robin in his side.
The outlaw recovered himself adroitly; and, full of sudden rage, stabbed at the knight under and across his guard. The capul hide hindered Sir Guy in his attempt at a parry--the horse head fell across his eyes.
Next instant Sir Guy of Gisborne went staggering backward with a deep groan, Robin's sword through his throat.
"You did bring this upon yourself," muttered Robin, eyeing the
body of the knight in vain regret. "Yet you did fall bravely, and in fair fight. You shall be buried honorably."
He dragged the body into the bushes; and, having taken off the horsehide, slipped it upon himself He then perceived that, hanging from the dead man's belt, there was a little silver whistle. "What may this be?" thought Robin.
Sir Guy, clothed in old and ragged dress, looked to be a plain yeoman, slain in defence of his life, or mayhap a forester. Pulling the hide well over himself, Robin put the little whistle to his lips and blew it shrilly.
Instantly, far off to the right of him, sounded an answering note, and again from behind him there was reply. In about four or five minutes twenty of the Sheriff's best archers came running through the wood to Robin's side.
"Didst signal for us, lording?" asked the leader of them, approaching Robin.
"Ay, see him! I have encountered and slain one of your robber fellows for ye," answered Robin, simulating Sir Guy's voice and manner. "I would have you take up his body upon your shoulders and bear him along this little path, wherefrom he sprang upon me."
The archers obeyed him immediately. "Do you follow us, lording?" they asked.
"I will lead ye," cried Robin, waving his red sword truculently. "Follow me speedily."
Thus he led them after him through the secret paths into Barnesdale, and there blew his horn so suddenly that Stuteley and his fellows were upon the Sheriff's men ere they might drop Sir Guy's dead body to the earth.
Robin bade his men disarm the archers, and tie such of them as would not prove amenable.
Thus the Sheriff was robbed of his best archers; for these fellows, finding the greenwood men to be of such friendly mind, soon joined in with them.
"This is well done, in sooth," said Robin, gently, to himself. "A good day's work; and Monceux will have cause to regret his share in it. Yet am I no nearer Nottingham after all, tho' I have twice sworn that
naught should stay me. Stuteley," added he, aloud, calling his squire to his side, "see you that this dead knight be buried with all respect; he fought me well and fairly."
"It shall be done, Master," answered Will Stuteley; "you may be easy about it. But I would have you listen to the talk of these archers--they have grave news of our comrade Little John. It seems that the Sheriff hath seized him for the killing of thy maid's father, and will presently have him dreadfully hanged and burned."
Robin uttered an exclamation of horror. Soon the terrible story was told him, and his brain reeled under the shock of it. All that night he paced the woods until the dawn, then fell incontinently into a deep and heavy slumber.
"Disturb him not nor let him take action until I do return," said the comfortable Friar Tuck, in business-like manner. "I know how his distemper will play upon him, and how he will bring us all to grief if he attempts the city again. Now I may go in and out as I will, being a curtal friar and not now remembered in these parts. I will visit the Sheriff and ask for leave to confess Master Little John. Then I will come back to you with the best news I may."
* * *
Geoffrey of Montfichet had ridden into Nottingham on the day before Sir Guy had left it. Carfax had known where the Princess might be found all the while his master, with the Bishop, was busy persuading the Knight of Gisborne that the maid was with Robin. One might be sure, however, that neither Monceux nor Carfax gave out any hint of this knowledge, for to do that would have stayed Sir Guy in his praiseworthy attempt upon the bold outlaw.
Geoffrey--Master Scarlett--had found difficult work before him, but he intended to save Little John. He was convinced that the cook had slain Fitzwalter, most likely at the command of some other person interested in the death.
Who might this be? Who had profited by the death of so unassuming a man as the late city warden?
Carfax treated Scarlett with scant ceremony. The lean-faced fellow devoured the item that the Princess of Aragon was safe at Gamewell, but gave nothing in return. Scarlett had been left to cool his heels in the
great hall of Nottingham Castle for near an hour afterward, whilst Simeon Carfax was closeted with the Sheriff.
They were having a tidying of the rooms in honor of the Bishop's visit. Whilst Scarlett impatiently waited the good pleasure of Master Carfax, the maids were busy carrying many things to and fro: fresh rushes to strew my lord's rooms, candles and tapers, silks and cloths, and brown ewers of water. All the rubbish and sweepings of the floors were borne out in great baskets to the courtyard.
One of the maids, a plump, roguish, lazy wench, would only carry her basket so far as the hearth of the hall. A fire was there, why not use it? Also she could ogle and throw sidelong looks at Master Scarlett, who for his beard and thirty-five grave years, was none so bad a man.
This girl was throwing into the open hearth a lot of ends of silk and combings from her mistress's room. She tossed the rubbish on the fire, at the same time eyeing Master Scarlett. Then, finding that he would not notice her, she poutingly returned with her basket upon a fresh journey.
Scarlett came over to the fire to pick up some of the burning scraps. They were drifting over the hearth into the room dangerously, thanks to the maid's carelessness.
He found in his hand a half-burned piece of parchment, which still fizzled and crackled in quaint malicious fashion.
Upon the parchment was an awkward writing, and some of the words showed up very black under the heat. Half-idly, Scarlett tried to make sense of them:
"This . . . dear child Marian, her affectionate father . . . Court of . . . in London town."
So far did Master Scarlett read before suddenly the beginnings of the truth flashed upon him. This was the very letter which he had borne to Marian.
How had it come into the castle? By what strange magic? Could Marian have carried it here herself?
He remembered that she had given it to Robin, and that he had put it into his bosom.
"Mistress, you seem indeed to be very busy this day," said Master Scarlett, affably, to the girl next time she appeared. "Do you prepare
me a chamber, for it seems that I am to wait here for a week at least."
"I am tidying my mistress's room, and have had hard work, I promise you," replied the girl, impudently. "Mayhap you will give me a help whilst you wait, Sir Taciturn? This is the fifth basket of rubbish I have borne from the demoiselle Marie's little cupboard."
"I will readily help you if you will help me," said Scarlett, pleasantly. "Canst tell me who wrote this little paper? The writing seemeth familiar to mine eyes."
"'Tis a piece of my lady's jesting," said the girl, after a glance at the parchment. " 'Twas written in imitation of Master Fitzwalter's hand after we had searched his house last year. Ah, poor man, who would have then imagined so hard a fate for him?" She sighed prodigiously, and rolled her eyes.
"Tell me the story of this murder, Mistress, I pray you."
She was not loth to fall a-chattering, and she told Scarlett all she knew of it. From the rambling history he discovered another strange fact, that Roger de Burgh had been cook in the Sheriff's household before he had gone to the Fitzwalter house. Slowly he began to see that the letter he had so blithely put into Marian's hand was a forgery, done by the clever fingers of the demoiselle Marie.
"So," thought he, swiftly, "Mistress Fitzwalter was persuaded to return to this place in order that Robin Hood might visit her secretly. The house was watched by a spy from the Sheriff's own kitchen. Soon as Robin came, this spy was to give warning; or, if matters pressed, kill him. But after many months of waiting, Fitzwalter came instead."
His quick mind, used to the intrigues and plots of a capricious Court, had unravelled the mystery. Yet how could he act upon this knowledge in the midst of the enemy's camp? If the Sheriff could stoop already to such foul business as this, to what further lengths would he not go? Dismissing himself through the girl, Scarlett strode out of the castle. The air seemed fresher and more wholesome without. He enquired and found his way to the house of grief, and there asked audience with its little heartbroken mistress.
* * *
Whilst Scarlett was plotting and inventing a hundred schemes to save Little John, a poor wandering priest appeared one evening before the
gates of Nottingham Castle. Most humbly he begged a little bread and a drink of water; and, having received these, he blessed the place and all within it.
"You should not bless all within this castle, Sir Priest," the Sheriff told him. Monceux had pompously administered to the man's simple wants with his own hands. "There is a villain in our cells who hath done wicked murder."
The ragged friar asked who that might be; and when he had heard, said that at the least he would confess this poor misguided fellow and so deliver his soul from everlasting punishment.
The Sheriff was rather doubtful, but seeing that the priest had no weapon upon him, he gave a sign that he should be admitted to Little John's cell.
There the friar found the big outlaw very dejected. "Give you good cheer, brother," said the friar, gently; "I have come to pray with you."
"What assistance can your prayers be to me?" asked Little John, sharply; "I am to be hanged tomorrow morn, and all your prayers will scarce alter that."
"Anger is a great sin," replied the priest.
"I have no sins against God," said Little John; "I have always endeavored to live easily and justly." Then the friar came up close to him, and whispered something in his ear. The outlaw's expression altered at once. "By the Sheriff's rope," muttered he, quite in his old manner, "but I swear that if thou canst get me a weapon--"
"Here is a little dagger," said Friar Tuck, pulling it out from under his gown. "'Tis small, but tomorrow it may be of use. I can do no more now; but be ready for us tomorrow, when the last moments are come. Robin Hood will not easily let you die, be sure of it."
The friar, after he had left the prison, ran all the way to Barnesdale, under the stars.