CHAPTER VI.-HOW ROBIN HOOD MET WILL SCARLET
The youngster was clothed in scarlet red In scarlet fine and gay; And he did frisk it o'er the plain, And chanted a roundelay.
One fine morning, soon after the proud Sheriff had been brought to grief, Robin Hood and Little John went strolling down a path through the wood. It was not far from the foot--bridge where they had fought their memorable battle; and by common impulse they directed their steps to the brook to quench their thirst and rest them in the cool bushes. The morning gave promise of a hot day. The road even by the brook was dusty. So the cooling stream was very pleasing and grateful to their senses.
On each side of them, beyond the dusty highway, stretched out broad fields of tender young corn. On the yon side of the fields uprose the sturdy oaks and beeches and ashes of the forest; while at their feet modest violets peeped out shyly and greeted the loiterers with an odor which made the heart glad. Over on the far side of the brook in a tiny bay floated three lily-pads; and from amid some clover blossoms on the bank an industrious bee rose with the hum of busy contentment. It was a day so brimful of quiet joy that the two friends lay flat on their backs gazing up at the scurrying clouds, and neither caring to break the silence.
Presently they heard some one coming up the road whistling gaily, as though he owned the whole world and 'twas but made to whistle in. Anon he chanted a roundelay with a merry note.
"By my troth, a gay bird!" quoth Robin, raising up on his elbow. "Let us lie still, and trust that his purse is not as light as his heart."
So they lay still, and in a minute more up came a smart stranger dressed in scarlet and silk and wearing a jaunty hat with a curling cock feather in it. His whole costume was of scarlet, from the feather to the silk hosen on his legs. A goodly sword hung at his side, its scabbard all embossed with tilting knights and weeping ladies. His hair was long and yellow and hung clustering about his shoulders, for all the world like a schoolgirl's; and he bore himself with as mincing a gait as the pertest of them.
Little John clucked his teeth drolly at this sight. "By my troth, a gay bird!" he said echoing the other's words--then added, "But not so bad a build for all his prettiness. Look you, those calves and thighs are well rounded and straight. The arms, for all that gold-wrought cloak, hang stoutly from full shoulders. I warrant you the fop can use his dainty sword right well on occasion."
"Nay," retorted Robin, "he is naught but a ladies' man from court. My long-bow 'gainst a plugged shilling that he would run and bellow lustily at sight of a quarter-staff. Stay you behind this bush and I will soon get some rare sport out of him. Belike his silk purse may contain more pennies than the law allows to one man in Sherwood or Barnesdale."
So saying Robin Hood stepped forth briskly from the covert and planted himself in the way of the scarlet stranger. The latter had walked so slowly that he was scarce come to their resting-place; and now on beholding Robin he neither slackened nor quickened his pace but sauntered idly straight ahead, looking to the right and to the left, with the finest air in the world, but never once at Robin.
"Hold!" quoth the outlaw. "What mean ye by running thus over a wayfarer, rough shod?"
"Wherefore should I hold, good fellow?" said the stranger in a smooth voice, and looking at Robin for the first time.
"Because I bid you to," replied Robin.
"And who may you be?" asked the other as coolly as you please.
"What my name is matters not," said Robin; "but know that I am a public tax-gatherer and equalizer of shillings. If your purse have more than a just number of shillings or pence, I must e'en lighten it somewhat; for there are many worthy people round about these borders who have less than the just amount. Wherefore, sweet gentleman, I pray you hand over your purse without more ado, that I may judge of its weight in proper fashion."
The other smiled as sweetly as though a lady were paying him a compliment.
"You are a droll fellow," he said calmly. "Your speech amuses me mightily. Pray continue, if you have not done, for I am in no hurry this morning."
"I have said all with my tongue that is needful," retorted Robin, beginning to grow red under the collar. "Nathless, I have other arguments which may not be so pleasing to your dainty skin. Prithee, stand and deliver. I promise to deal fairly with the purse."
"Alack-a-day!" said the stranger with a little shrug of his shoulders; "I am deeply sorrowful that I cannot show my purse to every rough lout that asks to see it. But I really could not, as I have further need of it myself and every farthing it contains. Wherefore, pray stand aside."
"Nay that will I not! and 'twill go the harder with you if you do not yield at once."
"Good fellow," said the other gently, "have I not heard all your speech with patience? Now that is all I promised to do. My conscience is salved and I must go on my way. To-rol-o-rol-e-loo!" he caroled, making as though to depart.
"Hold, I say!" quoth Robin hotly; for he knew how Little John must be chuckling at this from behind the bushes. "Hold I say, else I shall have to bloody those fair locks of yours!" And he swung his quarter-staff threateningly.
"Alas!" moaned the stranger shaking his head. "The pity of it all! Now I shall have to run this fellow through with my sword! And I hoped to be a peaceable man henceforth!" And sighing deeply he drew his shining blade and stood on guard.
"Put by your weapon," said Robin. "It is too pretty a piece of steel to get cracked with common oak cudgel; and that is what would happen on the first pass I made at you. Get you a stick like mine out of yon undergrowth, and we will fight fairly, man to man."
The stranger thought a moment with his usual slowness, and eyed Robin from head to foot. Then he unbuckled his scabbard, laid it and the sword aside, and walked deliberately over to the oak thicket. Choosing from among the shoots and saplings he found a stout little tree to his liking, when he laid hold of it, without stopping to cut it, and gave a tug. Up it came root and all, as though it were a stalk of corn, and the stranger walked back trimming it as quietly as though pulling up trees were the easiest thing in the world.
Little John from his hiding-place saw the feat, and could hardly restrain a long whistle. "By our Lady!" he muttered to himself, "I would not be in Master Robin's boots!"
Whatever Robin thought upon seeing the stranger's strength, he uttered not a word and budged not an inch. He only put his oak staff at parry as the other took his stand.
There was a threefold surprise that day, by the brookside. The stranger and Robin and Little John in the bushes all found a combat that upset all reckoning. The stranger for all his easy strength and cool nerve found an antagonist who met his blows with the skill of a woodman. Robin found the stranger as hard to hit as though fenced in by an oak hedge. While Little John rolled over and over in silent joy.
Back and forth swayed the fighters, their cudgels pounding this way and that, knocking off splinters and bark, and threatening direst damage to bone and muscle and skin. Back and forth they pranced kicking up a cloud of dust and gasping for fresh air. From a little way off you would have vowed that these two men were trying to put out a fire, so thickly hung the cloud of battle over them. Thrice did Robin smite the scarlet man--with such blows that a less stout fellow must have bowled over. Only twice did the scarlet man smite Robin, but the second blow was like to finish him. The first had been delivered over the knuckles, and though 'twas a glancing stroke it well nigh broke Robin's fingers, so that he could not easily raise his staff again. And while he was dancing about in pain and muttering a dust-covered oath, the other's staff came swinging through the cloud at one side--zip!--and struck him under the arm. Down went Robin as though he were a nine-pin--flat down into the dust of the road. But despite the pain he was bounding up again like an India rubber man to renew the attack, when Little John interfered.
"Hold!" said he, bursting out of the bushes and seizing the stranger's weapon. "Hold, I say!"
"Nay," retorted the stranger quietly, "I was not offering to smite him while he was down. But if there be a whole nest of you hatching here by the waterside, cluck out the other chicks and I'll make shift to fight them all."
"Not for all the deer in Sherwood!" cried Robin. "You are a good fellow and a gentleman. I'll fight no more with you, for verily I feel sore in wrist and body. Nor shall any of mine molest you henceforth."
Sooth to say, Robin did not look in good fighting trim. His clothes were coated with dirt, one of his hosen had slipped halfway down from his knee, the sleeve of his jerkin was split, and his face was streaked with sweat and dirt. Little John eyed him drolly.
"How now, good master," quoth he, "the sport you were to kick up has left you in sorry plight. Let me dust your coat for you."
"Marry, it has been dusted enough already," replied Robin; "and I now believe the Scripture saying that all men are but dust, for it has sifted me through and through and lined my gullet an inch deep. By your leave"--and he went to the brookside and drank deep and laved his face and hands.
All this while the stranger had been eyeing Robin attentively and listening to his voice as though striving to recall it.
"If I mistake not," he said slowly at last, "you are that famous outlaw, Robin Hood of Barnesdale."
"You say right," replied Robin; "but my fame has been tumbling sadly about in the dust to-day."
"Now why did I not know you at once?" continued the stranger. "This battle need not have happened, for I came abroad to find you to-day, and thought to have remembered your face and speech. Know you not me, Rob, my lad? Hast ever been to Gamewell Lodge?"
"Ha! Will Gamewell! my dear old chum, Will Gamewell!" shouted Robin, throwing his arms about the other in sheer affection. "What an ass I was not to recognize you! But it has been years since we parted, and your gentle schooling has polished you off mightily."
Will embraced his cousin no less heartily.
"We are quits on not knowing kinsmen," he said, "for you have changed and strengthened much from the stripling with whom I used to run foot races in old Sherwood."
"But why seek you me?" asked Robin. "You know I am an outlaw and dangerous company. And how left you mine uncle? and have you heard aught of late of--of Maid Marian?"
"Your last question first," answered Will, laughing, "for I perceive that it lies nearest your heart. I saw Maid Marian not many weeks after the great shooting at Nottingham, when you won her the golden arrow. She prizes the bauble among her dearest possessions, though it has made her an enemy in the Sheriff's proud daughter. Maid Marian bade me tell you, if I ever saw you, that she must return to Queen Eleanor's court, but she could never forget the happy days in the greenwood. As for the old Squire, he is still hale and hearty, though rheumatic withal. He speaks of you as a sad young dog, but for all that is secretly proud of your skill at the bow and of the way you are pestering the Sheriff, whom he likes not. 'Twas for my father's sake that I am now in the open, an outlaw like yourself. He has had a steward, a surly fellow enough, who, while I was away at school, boot-licked his way to favor until he lorded it over the whole house. Then he grew right saucy and impudent, but my father minded it not, deeming the fellow indispensable in managing the estate. But when I came back it irked me sorely to see the fellow strut about as though he owned the place. He was sly enough with me at first, and would brow-beat the Squire only while I was out of earshot. It chanced one day, however, that I heard loud voices through an open window and paused to hearken. That vile servant called my father 'a meddling old fool,' 'Fool and meddler art thou thyself, varlet,' I shouted, springing through the window, 'THAT for thy impudence!' and in my heat I smote him a blow mightier than I intended, for I have some strength in mine arm. The fellow rolled over and never breathed afterwards, I think I broke his neck or something the like. Then I knew that the Sheriff would use this as a pretext to hound my father, if I tarried. So I bade the Squire farewell and told him I would seek you in Sherwood."
"Now by my halidom!" said Robin Hood; "for a man escaping the law, you took it about as coolly as one could wish. To see you come tripping along decked out in all your gay plumage and trolling forth a roundelay, one would think you had not a care in all the world. Indeed I remarked to Little John here that I hoped your purse was not as light as your heart."
"Belike you meant HEAD," laughed Will; "and is this Little John the Great? Shake hands with me, an you will, and promise me to cross a staff with me in friendly bout some day in the forest!"
"That will I!" quoth Little John heartily. "Here's my hand on it. What is your last name again, say you?"
"'Tis to be changed," interposed Robin; "then shall the men armed with warrants go hang for all of us. Let me bethink myself. Ah!--I have it! In scarlet he came to us, and that shall be his name henceforth. Welcome to the greenwood, Will Scarlet!"
"Aye, welcome, Will Scarlet!" said Little John; and they all clasped hands again and swore to be true each to the other and to Robin Hood's men in Sherwood Forest.Next