Searching rain continued all that night. They well expected to find the Sheriff and his army encamped against them on the morrow.
Strangely enough, the morning showed the countryside quiet and peaceful as of old. Monceux and his fellows, if there, were well hid indeed--nothing might be seen of them.
From the castle battlement, afar off, mysterious under grey opaque morning, lay Nottingham. The old town seemed to be yet asleep; but there was plenty of movement within its gates for all that. A messenger had come out hastily to Monceux, even while he and Carfax had been perfecting details of the siege which they intended to apply to the knight's castle. This man brought the Sheriff news of such moment as to cause him to give up the hope of catching Robin without another effort. My lord of Hereford had had the news from York--he had sped it to Monceux: "The King is abroad; take care of thyself."
That was the item even as it had come in to Prince John from his cousin Philip of France: "The King is abroad."
Richard of England, the Lion Heart, he whom all thought to be safely out of the country--some said in a foreign prison, others that he was fighting the paynims in the Holy Land. In any case, he had returned, and now all such as the Sheriff and the Bishop of Hereford must put their houses in order, and say, once and for all, that they would be loyal and faithful and plot no more with fickle princes behind their true King's back.
Sir Richard of the Lee, whose son had so lately come home to his
father's castle, could, an he had liked, have explained much to them. He knew that the King was in England; for had he not, but a few hours since, parted from him with a pardon in his hand and happiness in his heart?
* * *
Friar Tuck, having been forced to run all night in order that he might be able to bring the news as to Little John in to Robin, had compensated himself for the loss of this repose by lying abed the better part of the next day. Stirring things were going forward in the old city of Nottingham, as we know; but only at dusk, when all was over and Robin and them all were safely lodged in Sir Richard's stronghold, did the worthy friar open his little wicket gate and remember him of his fasting dogs.
He fed them and passed the remaining hours of day in putting them through their tricks; then, feeling that he had well earned a good meal, the friar took out some sumptuous fare from his larder and arranged it conveniently upon the small wooden bench in his cell. He then lit a taper, as the night was at hand, bolted and barred his door, and drew his seat close to the promising board.
He uprolled his eyes, and had commenced a Latin grace, when suddenly came interruption unpleasant and alarming. One of his dogs began to bark, deeply and resentfully. The others followed him in the same note, changing the calm stillness of the night into discordant, frenzied clamor. "Now, who, in the name of all the saints, cometh here?" exclaimed Tuck, wrathfully, proceeding to bundle his supper back into the small larder. "May perdition and all the furies grant that he may evermore know the pangs of an empty stomach!"
His pious wishes were rudely interrupted by a loud knocking upon the door of his hermitage. "Open, open!" cried a strident voice.
"I have no means of helping you, poor traveller," roared the friar. "Go your way into Gamewell, 'tis but a few miles hence upon a straight road."
"I will not stir another yard," said the voice, determinedly; "open your door, or I will batter it down with the hilt of my sword."
The priest then, with anger glowing in his eyes, unbarred the door, and flung it open. Before him stood the figure of a knight, clad in black armor and with vizor down.
The Black Knight strode into the friar's cell without waiting for invitation.
"Have you no supper, Brother?" asked the knight, curtly. "I must beg a bed of you this night, and fain would refresh my body ere I sleep."
"I have naught but half of mine own supper to offer you," replied Tuck; "a little dry bread and a pitcher of water."
"Methinks I can smell better fare than that, Brother"; and the Black Knight offered to look into the larder.
This was more than Tuck could bear, so he caught up his staff and flung himself before his guest in a threatening attitude. "Why, then, if you will," cried the knight, and he struck the priest smartly with the flat of his sword.
The friar put down his staff. "Now," said he, with meaning, "since you have struck me we will play this game to a fair finish. Wherefore, if you are a true knight, give me your pledge that you will fight me on tomorrow morn with quarterstaff until one of us shall cry 'Enough.'"
"With all my soul," cried the knight, readily. "And will give more knocks than ever you have given your dogs."
"One gives and takes," retorted Tuck, sententiously; "put up your sword and help me to lay supper, for I am passing hungry."
They spread the supper table between them, and once again the friar sat down hopefully. He spoke his grace with unction, and was surprised to hear his guest echo the Latin words after him. The knight unlaced his helm and took it off. He appeared as a bronzed and bearded man, stern-looking and handsome.
They then attacked the venison pasty right valiantly, and pledged each other in a cup of wine. The good food and comfort warmed them both, and soon they were at a gossip, cheerful and astounding. So they passed the time until the hour grew late; and both fell asleep together, almost in their places, by the despoiled supper table.
In the morning they breakfasted on the remains, and then they washed their faces in the jumping brook. The knight told the priest that he had left his companions at Locksley on the previous evening. He asked so many questions as to Robin Hood and his men that the priest had to fence very skilfully.
If the knight had been in a hurry before he seemed now to have changed his mind. He said that he would wait for his companions, if the priest could bear with him, and Friar Tuck, having taken a great liking to this genial traveller, made no complaint.
"I must presently journey forth to visit a poor man who lieth on a sickbed," said the friar, thinking of Robin.
"Mayhap we may travel together?" suggested the knight. "I am going, so soon as friends have found me, into Gamewell."
"I go into Barnesdale," said Tuck, quickly, "which is in quite another direction."
At last the knight said he must go on, with or without his fellows, and he took up his sword. The friar then got out two quarterstaves, full nine feet long. Without a word he handed one to the knight.
He took it, and eyed the friar whimsically; then, seeing no sign of relenting in him, shrugged his shoulders. He put of his helm again, and both going out to the little glade by the ruined shrine of St. Dunstan, they prepared for a bout with the staves.
For all his plumpness Tuck was no mean opponent at the game. He skipped and flourished about and around the knight in a surprising way; and gave him at last such a crack upon his crown as made the tears start.
Then the Black Knight struck in mighty wrath, and soon the blows of their staves were making the welkin ring. So busy they were as to give no heed of the approach of a goodly company of men.
It was Sir Richard of the Lee, with his son and retinue, journeying in a roundabout way in order to throw Monceux off the scent, and so give Robin a chance to reach his stronghold in Barnesdale. Both knights paused in amazement to see this furious combat.
At last the Black Knight brought down his staff with a noise like felling timber upon the shoulder of the priest. Tuck staggered, and dropped his staff. "Enough, enough," he cried; then fell in a heap upon the wet grass.
The knight flung away his staff and ran to help him. He lifted up the priest's head and put it on his knee. Glancing up, he espied them all staring at him. "Run, one of you, and bring me some water."
Sir Richard of the Lee started when he heard that voice. He turned to
his son, but already the young man had doffed his helm and was filling it with water from the brook. He brought it quickly to the Black Knight, and, offering it, kneeled before him in deepest respect and affection.
"I thank you, child," spoke the Black Knight, graciously. "See, this good fellow hath but swooned and already doth revive. Are these your men, and this the father who gave his all for you?"
Sir Richard drew nearer and kneeled as his son had done, whilst the servitors looked on in strange fear. "Arise, honest man," said the Black Knight, with feeling, "I know your story, and have pardoned your son. What can I give to you to show you how we esteem a man just and faithful, even in adversity?"
"Sire," faltered Sir Richard, rising and standing with bared head before him. "If I might ask aught of you I would crave amnesty for myself and for my men. You will hear ere long how we have befriended one Robin Hood, an outlaw of these woods. Through his generous help I was able to disencumber my estates, and yesterday, seeing him hard pressed, I opened my hall to him."
"I will hear the story," the Black Knight said, briefly, "and then I will judge." He turned to Tuck, who now was sitting up, and gazing about him in bewildered fashion. "Take my hand, Brother; let me help you to your feet."
"Tell me," said the friar, leaning on the knight, after he had risen, "was that a bolt from the sky which just now did strike me down?"
"I do fear it was this staff, Brother," answered the other, smiling, "with my poor arm to guide it. 'Twas an ill requital for your hospitality, and I ask your forgiveness."
"So small a thing as man's forgiveness of man," spoke Tuck, sententiously, "I freely accord to you." He peeped at Sir Richard, and recognized him at once as the knight of the woeful visage. He made no sign of this knowledge, however. "Are these your companions, Sir Knight, of whom you did tell me last night?" he asked, indicating the others with a wide gesture.
"Why, yes, and no, Brother," replied the knight, whimsically. "They are not my companions in a sense, and yet I do purpose to make them such forthwith. But come, 'tis time for me to be stirring an I
would make an end of my quest. I will be frank with you, Brother. I seek Robin Hood, and had hoped that he might be attending you today in this very place."
The friar put up his hands with an exclamation of horror. "I am a lover of peace, Sir Knight, and do not consort with such as these."
"Nay, I think no harm of Master Hood," the knight hastened to say, "but I much yearn to see and speak with him."
"If that be all, and you will come with me," said Tuck, scenting a good prey for Robin, "I will undertake to show you where these villains say their nightly mass. I could not live long in this wood without knowing somewhat of Master Hood, be sure; and matters of religion have perforce my most earnest attention."
"I will go with you, Brother," said the Black Knight.
The friar led the three to his cell. "Bid all the men return to your castle," the Black Knight commanded, loudly, "save four of those most to be trusted." Under his breath he bade Sir Richard tell his fellows to pretend to disperse, and to follow stealthily after their master soon as an hour was gone.
Friar Tuck had produced some old monkish gowns from under a bench. He bade the seven of them put them on, the three knights and the four chosen men. "We will attend the mass as brothers of my order, which is Dominican, as you may see," explained Tuck, easily. "You, Sir Knight of the iron wrist, shall wear this dress, which was an abbot's once. I would we had a horse for you; it would be more seemly, and less like to rouse suspicion."
Sir Richard said that there were horses with his men in plenty; and one was readily obtained for the Black Knight's use. The little cavalcade set out for Barnesdale, the friar joyfully leading the way. The servitors affected to return to Sir Richard's castle, but hid themselves in the bushes instead.
After going deeper and deeper into the forest they came at last to a part of Watling Street, and there was Robin Hood with a score of his men. He was watching the road for Monceux, having a notion that the Sheriff would try now to take them in the rear.
Recognizing Tuck at once, Robin walked boldly up to them. "By your leave, brothers," cried he, taking hold of the bridle of the knight's
horse and stopping him, "we are poor yeomen of the forest, and have no means of support, thanks to the tyranny and injustice of the Norman nobles in this land. But you abbots and churchmen have both fine churches and rents, and plenty of gold without. Wherefore, for charity's sake, give us a little of your spending money."
"We are poor monks, good Master Hood," cried Tuck, in a wheedling tone; "I pray you do not stay us. We are journeying with all speed to a monastery in Fountain's Dale, which we hear hath been deserted by its owners."
"I can tell you much concerning this very place," said Robin. "Give me alms, and I will open my lips to purpose."
The pretended abbot spoke now. "I have been journeying, good Master Hood, with the King," said he, in full deep voice, "and I have spent the greater part of my moneys. Fifty golden pieces is all that I have with me."
"It is the very sum I would ask of thee, Sir Abbot," said Robin, cheerily.
He took the gold which the other freely offered, and divided it into two even sums. One half he gave to those with him, bidding them take it to the treasury, the other he returned to the knight. "For thy courtesy, Sir Abbot, keep this gold for thine own spending. 'Tis like that you will journey with the King again, and need it."
"I will tell you now," said the pretended abbot, "for I see that you are truly Robin Hood, although so small a man, that Richard of the Lion Heart is returned to England, and hath bid me seek you out * He hath heard much of you, and bids you, through me, to come into Nottingham and there partake of his hospitality."
Robin laughed heartily. "That is where we may not venture, Sir Abbot, since we value our skins. But where is your authority?"
The knight produced the King's seal from under his abbot's gown. Robin looked at it, and fell at once upon his knees. "I love a true man," cried he, "and by all hearing my King is such an one. Now that he is come to take sovereignty over us we may hope for justice, even in Nottingham town. I thank you for your tidings, Sir Abbot; and for the love I have of valor and all true kingly virtues, I bid you and your fellows to sup freely with us under my trystal tree." He then offered to
lead them into Barnesdale; and the pretended monks, after a short discussion, agreed to accept his offer.
They soon were come before the caves of Barnesdale, and were presented to those of the band already there. Presently Robin blew two blasts upon his horn, and the rest of the greenwood men made their appearance. All were dressed in their new livery, and carried new bows in their left hands. Each one knelt for a moment before Robin, as leader of them, ere taking his place.
A handsome, dark-haired page stood at Robin's right hand, to hold his cup for him and pour him wine. The signal was given. Robin graciously placed the abbot in the place of honor; and under the cool fresh evening, bright still with the aftermath of the day, the banquet was begun.
The Black Knight was struck with astonishment. "By all the saints," thought he, "this is a wondrous sight. There is more obedience shown to this outlaw man than my fellows have shown to me."