COLD WINTER had passed and spring had come. No leafy thickness had yet clad the woodlands, but the budding leaves hung like a tender mist about the trees. In the open country the meadow lands lay a sheeny green, the cornfields a dark velvety color, for they were thick and soft with the growing blades. The plowboy shouted in the sun, and in the purple new-turned furrows flocks of birds hunted for fat worms. All the broad moist earth smiled in the warm light, and each little green hill clapped its hand for joy.
On a deer's hide, stretched on the ground in the open in front of the greenwood tree, sat Robin Hood basking in the sun like an old dog fox. Leaning back with his hands clasped about his knees, he lazily watched Little John rolling a stout bowstring from long strands of hempen thread, wetting the palms of his hands ever and anon, and rolling the cord upon his thigh. Near by sat Allan a Dale fitting a new string to his harp.
Quoth Robin at last, "Methinks I would rather roam this forest in the gentle springtime than be King of all merry England. What palace in the broad world is as fair as this sweet woodland just now, and what king in all the world hath such appetite for plover's eggs and lampreys as I for juicy venison and sparkling ale? Gaffer Swanthold speaks truly when he saith, `Better a crust with content than honey with a sour heart.' "
"Yea," quoth Little John, as he rubbed his new-made bowstring with yellow beeswax, "the life we lead is the life for me. Thou speakest of the springtime, but methinks even the winter hath its own joys. Thou and I, good master, have had more than one merry day, this winter past, at the Blue Boar. Dost thou not remember that night thou and Will Stutely and Friar Tuck and I passed at that same hostelry with the two beggars and the strolling friar?"
"Yea," quoth merry Robin, laughing, "that was the night that Will Stutely must needs snatch a kiss from the stout hostess, and got a canakin of ale emptied over his head for his pains."
"Truly, it was the same," said Little John, laughing also. "Methinks that was a goodly song that the strolling friar sang. Friar Tuck, thou hast a quick ear for a tune, dost thou not remember it?"
"I did have the catch of it one time," said Tuck. "Let me see," and he touched his forefinger to his forehead in thought, humming to himself, and stopping ever and anon to fit what he had got to what he searched for in his mind. At last he found it all and clearing his throat, sang merrily:
"In the blossoming hedge the robin cock sings,
For the sun it is merry and bright,
And he joyfully hops and he flutters his wings,
For his heart is all full of delight.
For the May bloometh fair,
And there's little of care,
And plenty to eat in the Maytime rare.
When the flowers all die,
Then off he will fly,
To keep himself warm
In some jolly old barn
Where the snow and the wind neither chill him nor harm.
"And such is the life of the strolling friar,
With aplenty to eat and to drink;
For the goodwife will keep him a seat by the fire,
And the pretty girls smile at his wink.
Then he lustily trolls
As he onward strolls,
A rollicking song for the saving of souls.
When the wind doth blow,
With the coming of snow,
There's a place by the fire
For the fatherly friar,
And a crab in the bowl for his heart's desire."
Thus Friar Tuck sang in a rich and mellow voice, rolling his head from side to side in time with the music, and when he had done, all clapped their hands and shouted with laughter, for the song fitted him well.
"In very sooth," quoth Little John, "it is a goodly song, and, were I not a yeoman of Sherwood Forest, I had rather be a strolling friar than aught else in the world."
"Yea, it is a goodly song," said Robin Hood, "but methought those two burly beggars told the merrier tales and led the merrier life. Dost thou not remember what that great black-bearded fellow told of his begging at the fair in York?"
"Yea," said Little John, "but what told the friar of the harvest home in Kentshire? I hold that he led a merrier life than the other two."
"Truly, for the honor of the cloth," quoth Friar Tuck, "I hold with my good gossip, Little John."
"Now," quoth Robin, "I hold to mine own mind. But what sayst thou, Little John, to a merry adventure this fair day? Take thou a friar's gown from our chest of strange garments, and don the same, and I will stop the first beggar I meet and change clothes with him. Then let us wander the country about, this sweet day, and see what befalls each of us."
"That fitteth my mind," quoth Little John, "so let us forth, say I."
Thereupon Little John and Friar Tuck went to the storehouse of the band, and there chose for the yeoman the robe of a Gray Friar. Then they came forth again, and a mighty roar of laughter went up, for not only had the band never seen Little John in such guise before, but the robe was too short for him by a good palm's-breadth. But Little John's hands were folded in his loose sleeves, and Little John's eyes were cast upon the ground, and at his girdle hung a great, long string of beads.
And now Little John took up his stout staff, at the end of which hung a chubby little leathern pottle, such as palmers carry at the tips of their staves; but in it was something, I wot, more like good Malmsey than cold spring water, such as godly pilgrims carry. Then up rose Robin and took his stout staff in his hand, likewise, and slipped ten golden angels into his pouch; for no beggar's garb was among the stores of the band, so he was fain to run his chance of meeting a beggar and buying his clothes of him.
So, all being made ready, the two yeomen set forth on their way, striding lustily along all in the misty morning. Thus they walked down the forest path until they came to the highway, and then along the highway till it split in twain, leading on one hand to Blyth and on the other to Gainsborough. Here the yeomen stopped.
Quoth jolly Robin, "Take thou the road to Gainsborough, and I will take that to Blyth. So, fare thee well, holy father, and mayst thou not ha' cause to count thy beads in earnest ere we meet again."
"Good den, good beggar that is to be," quoth Little John, "and mayst thou have no cause to beg for mercy ere I see thee next."
So each stepped sturdily upon his way until a green hill rose between them, and the one was hid from the sight of the other.
Little John walked along, whistling, for no one was nigh upon all the road. In the budding hedges the little birds twittered merrily, and on either hand the green hills swept up to the sky, the great white clouds of springtime sailing slowly over their crowns in lazy flight. Up hill and down dale walked Little John, the fresh wind blowing in his face and his robes fluttering behind him, and so at last he came to a crossroad that led to Tuxford. Here he met three pretty lasses, each bearing a basket of eggs to market. Quoth he, "Whither away, fair maids?" And he stood in their path, holding his staff in front of them, to stop them.
Then they huddled together and nudged one another, and one presently spake up and said, "We are going to the Tuxford market, holy friar, to sell our eggs."
"Now out upon it!" quoth Little John, looking upon them with his head on one side. "Surely, it is a pity that such fair lasses should be forced to carry eggs to market. Let me tell you, an I had the shaping of things in this world, ye should all three have been clothed in the finest silks, and ride upon milk-white horses, with pages at your side, and feed upon nothing but whipped cream and strawberries; for such a life would surely befit your looks."
At this speech all three of the pretty maids looked down, blushing and simpering. One said, "La!" another, "Marry, a' maketh sport of us!" and the third, "Listen, now, to the holy man!" But at the same time they looked at Little John from out the corners of their eyes.
"Now, look you," said Little John, "I cannot see such dainty damsels as ye are carrying baskets along a highroad. Let me take them mine own self, and one of you, if ye will, may carry my staff for me."
"Nay," said one of the lasses, "but thou canst not carry three baskets all at one time."
"Yea, but I can," said Little John, "and that I will show you presently. I thank the good Saint Wilfred that he hath given me a pretty wit. Look ye, now. Here I take this great basket, so; here I tie my rosary around the handle, thus; and here I slip the rosary over my head and sling the basket upon my back, in this wise." And Little John did according to his words, the basket hanging down behind him like a peddler's pack; then, giving his staff to one of the maids, and taking a basket upon either arm, he turned his face toward Tuxford Town and stepped forth merrily, a laughing maid on either side, and one walking ahead, carrying the staff. In this wise they journeyed along, and everyone they met stopped and looked after them, laughing, for never had anybody seen such a merry sight as this tall, strapping Gray Friar, with robes all too short for him, laden with eggs, and tramping the road with three pretty lasses. For this Little John cared not a whit, but when such folks gave jesting words to him he answered back as merrily, speech for speech.
So they stepped along toward Tuxford, chatting and laughing, until they came nigh to the town. Here Little John stopped and set down the baskets, for he did not care to go into the town lest he should, perchance, meet some of the Sheriff's men. "Alas! sweet chucks," quoth he, "here I must leave you. I had not thought to come this way, but I am glad that I did so. Now, ere we part, we must drink sweet friendship." So saying, he unslung the leathern pottle from the end of his staff, and, drawing the stopper therefrom, he handed it to the lass who had carried his staff, first wiping the mouth of the pottle upon his sleeve. Then each lass took a fair drink of what was within, and when it had passed all around, Little John finished what was left, so that not another drop could be squeezed from it. Then, kissing each lass sweetly, he wished them all good den, and left them. But the maids stood looking after him as he walked away whistling. "What a pity," quoth one, "that such a stout, lusty lad should be in holy orders."
"Marry," quoth Little John to himself, as he strode along, "yon was no such ill happening; Saint Dunstan send me more of the like."
After he had trudged along for a time he began to wax thirsty again in the warmth of the day. He shook his leathern pottle beside his ear, but not a sound came therefrom. Then he placed it to his lips and tilted it high aloft, but not a drop was there. "Little John! Little John!" said he sadly to himself, shaking his head the while, "woman will be thy ruin yet, if thou dost not take better care of thyself."
But at last he reached the crest of a certain hill, and saw below a sweet little thatched inn lying snugly in the dale beneath him, toward which the road dipped sharply. At the sight of this, a voice within him cried aloud, "I give thee joy, good friend, for yonder is thy heart's delight, to wit, a sweet rest and a cup of brown beer." So he quickened his pace down the hill and so came to the little inn, from which hung a sign with a stag's head painted upon it. In front of the door a clucking hen was scratching in the dust with a brood of chickens about her heels, the sparrows were chattering of household affairs under the eaves, and all was so sweet and peaceful that Little John's heart laughed within him. Beside the door stood two stout cobs with broad soft-padded saddles, well fitted for easy traveling, and speaking of rich guests in the parlor. In front of the door three merry fellows, a tinker, a peddler, and a beggar, were seated on a bench in the sun quaffing stout ale.
"I give you good den, sweet friends," quoth Little John, striding up to where they sat.
"Give thee good den, holy father," quoth the merry Beggar with a grin. "But look thee, thy gown is too short. Thou hadst best cut a piece off the top and tack it to the bottom, so that it may be long enough. But come, sit beside us here and take a taste of ale, if thy vows forbid thee not."
"Nay," quoth Little John, also grinning, "the blessed Saint Dunstan hath given me a free dispensation for all indulgence in that line." And he thrust his hand into his pouch for money to pay his score.
"Truly," quoth the Tinker, "without thy looks belie thee, holy friar, the good Saint Dunstan was wise, for without such dispensation his votary is like to ha' many a penance to make. Nay, take thy hand from out thy pouch, brother, for thou shalt not pay this shot. Ho, landlord, a pot of ale!"
So the ale was brought and given to Little John. Then, blowing the froth a little way to make room for his lips, he tilted the bottom of the pot higher and higher, till it pointed to the sky, and he had to shut his eyes to keep the dazzle of the sunshine out of them. Then he took the pot away, for there was nothing in it, and heaved a full deep sigh, looking at the others with moist eyes and shaking his head solemnly.
"Ho, landlord!" cried the Peddler, "bring this good fellow another pot of ale, for truly it is a credit to us all to have one among us who can empty a canakin so lustily."
So they talked among themselves merrily, until after a while quoth Little John, "Who rideth those two nags yonder?"
"Two holy men like thee, brother," quoth the Beggar. "They are now having a goodly feast within, for I smelled the steam of a boiled pullet just now. The landlady sayeth they come from Fountain Abbey, in Yorkshire, and go to Lincoln on matters of business."
"They are a merry couple," said the Tinker, "for one is as lean as an old wife's spindle, and the other as fat as a suet pudding."
"Talking of fatness," said the Peddler, "thou thyself lookest none too ill-fed, holy friar."
"Nay, truly," said Little John, "thou seest in me what the holy Saint Dunstan can do for them that serve him upon a handful of parched peas and a trickle of cold water."
At this a great shout of laughter went up. "Truly, it is a wondrous thing," quoth the Beggar, "I would have made my vow, to see the masterly manner in which thou didst tuck away yon pot of ale, that thou hadst not tasted clear water for a brace of months. Has not this same holy Saint Dunstan taught thee a goodly song or two?"
"Why, as for that," quoth Little John, grinning, "mayhap he hath lent me aid to learn a ditty or so."
"Then, prythee, let us hear how he hath taught thee," quoth the Tinker.
At this Little John cleared his throat and, after a word or two about a certain hoarseness that troubled him, sang thus:
"Ah, pretty, pretty maid, whither dost thou go?
I prythee, prythee, wait for thy lover also,
And we'll gather the rose
As it sweetly blows,
For the merry, merry winds are blo-o-o-wing."
Now it seemed as though Little John's songs were never to get sung, for he had got no farther than this when the door of the inn opened and out came the two brothers of Fountain Abbey, the landlord following them, and, as the saying is, washing his hands with humble soap. But when the brothers of Fountain Abbey saw who it was that sang, and how he was clad in the robes of a Gray Friar, they stopped suddenly, the fat little Brother drawing his heavy eyebrows together in a mighty frown, and the thin Brother twisting up his face as though he had sour beer in his mouth. Then, as Little John gathered his breath for a new verse, "How, now," roared forth the fat Brother, his voice coming from him like loud thunder from a little cloud, "thou naughty fellow, is this a fit place for one in thy garb to tipple and sing profane songs?"
"Nay," quoth Little John, "sin' I cannot tipple and sing, like Your Worship's reverence, in such a goodly place as Fountain Abbey, I must e'en tipple and sing where I can."
"Now, out upon thee," cried the tall lean Brother in a harsh voice, "now, out upon thee, that thou shouldst so disgrace thy cloth by this talk and bearing."
"Marry, come up!" quoth Little John. "Disgrace, sayest thou? Methinks it is more disgrace for one of our garb to wring hard-earned farthings out of the gripe of poor lean peasants. It is not so, brother?"
At this the Tinker and the Peddler and the Beggar nudged one another, and all grinned, and the friars scowled blackly at Little John; but they could think of nothing further to say, so they turned to their horses. Then Little John arose of a sudden from the bench where he sat, and ran to where the brothers of Fountain Abbey were mounting. Quoth he, "Let me hold your horses' bridles for you. Truly, your words have smitten my sinful heart, so that I will abide no longer in this den of evil, but will go forward with you. No vile temptation, I wot, will fall upon me in such holy company."
"Nay, fellow," said the lean Brother harshly, for he saw that Little John made sport of them, "we want none of thy company, so get thee gone."
"Alas," quoth Little John, "I am truly sorry that ye like me not nor my company, but as for leaving you, it may not be, for my heart is so moved, that, willy-nilly, I must go with you for the sake of your holy company."
Now, at this talk all the good fellows on the bench grinned till their teeth glistened, and even the landlord could not forbear to smile. As for the friars, they looked at one another with a puzzled look, and knew not what to do in the matter. They were so proud that it made them feel sick with shame to think of riding along the highroad with a strolling friar, in robes all too short for him, running beside them, but yet they could not make Little John stay against his will, for they knew he could crack the bones of both of them in a twinkling were he so minded. Then up spake the fat Brother more mildly than he had done before. "Nay, good brother," said he, "we will ride fast, and thou wilt tire to death at the pace."
"Truly, I am grateful to thee for the thought of me," quoth Little John, "but have no fear, brother; my limbs are stout, and I could run like a hare from here to Gainsborough."
At these words a sound of laughing came from the bench, whereat the lean Brother's wrath boiled over, like water into the fire, with great fuss and noise. "Now, out upon thee, thou naughty fellow!" he cried. "Art thou not ashamed to bring disgrace so upon our cloth? Bide thee here, thou sot, with these porkers. Thou art no fit company for us."
"La, ye there now!" quoth Little John. "Thou hearest, landlord; thou art not fit company for these holy men; go back to thine alehouse. Nay, if these most holy brothers of mine do but give me the word, I'll beat thy head with this stout staff till it is as soft as whipped eggs."
At these words a great shout of laughter went up from those on the bench, and the landlord's face grew red as a cherry from smothering his laugh in his stomach; but he kept his merriment down, for he wished not to bring the ill-will of the brothers of Fountain Abbey upon him by unseemly mirth. So the two brethren, as they could do nought else, having mounted their nags, turned their noses toward Lincoln and rode away.
"I cannot stay longer, sweet friends," quoth Little John, as he pushed in betwixt the two cobs, "therefore I wish you good den. Off we go, we three." So saying, he swung his stout staff over his shoulder and trudged off, measuring his pace with that of the two nags.
The two brothers glowered at Little John when he so pushed himself betwixt them, then they drew as far away from him as they could, so that the yeoman walked in the middle of the road, while they rode on the footpath on either side of the way. As they so went away, the Tinker, the Peddler, and the Beggar ran skipping out into the middle of the highway, each with a pot in his hand, and looked after them laughing.
While they were in sight of those at the inn, the brothers walked their horses soberly, not caring to make ill matters worse by seeming to run away from Little John, for they could not but think how it would sound in folks' ears when they heard how the brethren of Fountain Abbey scampered away from a strolling friar, like the Ugly One, when the blessed Saint Dunstan loosed his nose from the red-hot tongs where he had held it fast; but when they had crossed the crest of the hill and the inn was lost to sight, quoth the fat Brother to the thin Brother, "Brother Ambrose, had we not better mend our pace?"
"Why truly, gossip," spoke up Little John, "methinks it would be well to boil our pot a little faster, for the day is passing on. So it will not jolt thy fat too much, onward, say I."
At this the two friars said nothing, but they glared again on Little John with baleful looks; then, without another word, they clucked to their horses, and both broke into a canter. So they galloped for a mile and more, and Little John ran betwixt them as lightly as a stag and never turned a hair with the running. At last the fat Brother drew his horse's rein with a groan, for he could stand the shaking no longer. "Alas," said Little John, with not so much as a catch in his breath, "I did sadly fear that the roughness of this pace would shake thy poor old fat paunch."
To this the fat Friar said never a word, but he stared straight before him, and he gnawed his nether lip. And now they traveled forward more quietly, Little John in the middle of the road whistling merrily to himself, and the two friars in the footpath on either side saying never a word.
Then presently they met three merry minstrels, all clad in red, who stared amain to see a Gray Friar with such short robes walking in the middle of the road, and two brothers, with heads bowed with shame, riding upon richly caparisoned cobs on the footpaths. When they had come near to the minstrels, Little John waved his staff like an usher clearing the way. "Make way!" he cried in a loud voice. "Make way! make way! For here we go, we three!" Then how the minstrels stared, and how they laughed! But the fat Friar shook as with an ague, and the lean Friar bowed his head over his horse's neck.
Then next they met two noble knights in rich array, with hawk on wrist, and likewise two fair ladies clad in silks and velvets, all a-riding on noble steeds. These all made room, staring, as Little John and the two friars came along the road. To them Little John bowed humbly. "Give you greetings, lords and ladies," said he. "But here we go, we three."
Then all laughed, and one of the fair ladies cried out, "What three meanest thou, merry friend?"
Little John looked over his shoulder, for they had now passed each other, and he called back, "Big Jack, lean Jack and fat Jack-pudding."
At this the fat Friar gave a groan and seemed as if he were like to fall from his saddle for shame; the other brother said nothing, but he looked before him with a grim and stony look.
Just ahead of them the road took a sudden turn around a high hedge, and some twoscore paces beyond the bend another road crossed the one they were riding upon. When they had come to the crossroad and were well away from those they had left, the lean Friar drew rein suddenly. "Look ye, fellow," quoth he in a voice quivering with rage, "we have had enough of thy vile company, and care no longer to be made sport of. Go thy way, and let us go ours in peace."
"La there, now!" quoth Little John. "Methought we were such a merry company, and here thou dost blaze up like fat in the pan. But truly, I ha' had enow of you today, though I can ill spare your company. I know ye will miss me, but gin ye want me again, whisper to Goodman Wind, and he will bring news thereof to me. But ye see I am a poor man and ye are rich. I pray you give me a penny or two to buy me bread and cheese at the next inn."
"We have no money, fellow," said the lean Friar harshly. "Come, Brother Thomas, let us forward."
But Little John caught the horses by the bridle reins, one in either hand. "Ha' ye in truth no money about you whatsoever?" said he. "Now, I pray you, brothers, for charity's sake, give me somewhat to buy a crust of bread, e'en though it be only a penny."
"I tell thee, fellow, we have no money," thundered the fat little Friar with the great voice.
"Ha' ye, in holy truth, no money?" asked Little John.
"Not a farthing," said the lean Friar sourly.
"Not a groat," said the fat Friar loudly.
"Nay," quoth Little John, "this must not be. Far be it from me to see such holy men as ye are depart from me with no money. Get both of you down straightway from off your horses, and we will kneel here in the middle of the crossroads and pray the blessed Saint Dunstan to send us some money to carry us on our journey."
"What sayest thou, thou limb of evil!" cried the lean Friar, fairly gnashing his teeth with rage. "Doss thou bid me, the high cellarer of Fountain Abbey, to get down from my horse and kneel in the dirty road to pray to some beggarly Saxon saint?"
"Now," quoth Little John, "I ha' a great part of a mind to crack thy head for thee for speaking thus of the good Saint Dunstan! But get down straightway, for my patience will not last much longer, and I may forget that ye are both in holy orders." So saying, he twirled his stout staff till it whistled again.
At this speech both friars grew as pale as dough. Down slipped the fat Brother from off his horse on one side, and down slipped the lean Brother on the other.
"Now, brothers, down on your knees and pray," said Little John; thereupon, putting his heavy hands upon the shoulder of each, he forced them to their knees, he kneeling also. Then Little John began to beseech Saint Dunstan for money, which he did in a great loud voice. After he had so besought the Saint for a time, he bade the friars feel in their pouches and see if the Saint had sent them anything; so each put his hand slowly in the pouch that hung beside him, but brought nothing thence.
"Ha!" quoth Little John, "have your prayers so little virtue? Then let us at it again." Then straightway he began calling on Saint Dunstan again, somewhat in this wise: "O gracious Saint Dunstan! Send some money straightway to these poor folk, lest the fat one waste away and grow as lean as the lean one, and the lean one waste away to nothing at all, ere they get to Lincoln Town; but send them only ten shillings apiece, lest they grow puffed up with pride, Any more than that that thou sendest, send to me.
"Now," quoth he, rising, "let us see what each man hath." Then he thrust his hand into his pouch and drew thence four golden angels. "What have ye, brothers?" said he.
Then once again each friar slowly thrust his hand into his pouch, and once again brought it out with nothing in it.
"Have ye nothing?" quoth Little John. "Nay, I warrant there is somewhat that hath crept into the seams of your pouches, and so ye ha' missed it. Let me look."
So he went first to the lean Friar, and, thrusting his hand into the pouch, he drew forth a leathern bag and counted therefrom one hundred and ten pounds of golden money. "I thought," quoth Little John, "that thou hadst missed, in some odd corner of thy pouch, the money that the blessed Saint had sent thee. And now let me see whether thou hast not some, also, brother." Thereupon he thrust his hand into the pouch of the fat Friar and drew thence a bag like the other and counted out from it threescore and ten pounds. "Look ye now," quoth he, "I knew the good Saint had sent thee some pittance that thou, also, hadst missed."
Then, giving them one pound between them, he slipped the rest of the money into his own pouch, saying, "Ye pledged me your holy word that ye had no money. Being holy men, I trust that ye would not belie your word so pledged, therefore I know the good Saint Dunstan hath sent this in answer to my prayers. But as I only prayed for ten shillings to be sent to each of you, all over and above that belongeth by rights to me, and so I take it. I give you good den, brothers, and may ye have a pleasant journey henceforth." So saying, he turned and left them, striding away. The friars looked at one another with a woeful look, and slowly and sadly they mounted their horses again and rode away with never a word.
But Little John turned his footsteps back again to Sherwood Forest, and merrily he whistled as he strode along.
And now we will see what befell Robin Hood in his venture as beggar.