THE STOUT YEOMEN of Sherwood Forest were ever early risers of a morn, more especially when the summertime had come, for then in the freshness of the dawn the dew was always the brightest, and the song of the small birds the sweetest.
Quoth Robin, "Now will I go to seek this same Friar of Fountain Abbey of whom we spake yesternight, and I will take with me four of my good men, and these four shall be Little John, Will Scarlet, David of Doncaster, and Arthur a Bland. Bide the rest of you here, and Will Stutely shall be your chief while I am gone." Then straightway Robin Hood donned a fine steel coat of chain mail, over which he put on a light jacket of Lincoln green. Upon his head he clapped a steel cap, and this he covered by one of soft white leather, in which stood a nodding cock's plume. By his side he hung a good broadsword of tempered steel, the bluish blade marked all over with strange figures of dragons, winged women, and what not. A gallant sight was Robin so arrayed, I wot, the glint of steel showing here and there as the sunlight caught brightly the links of polished mail that showed beneath his green coat.
So, having arrayed himself, he and the four yeomen set forth upon their way, Will Scarlet taking the lead, for he knew better than the others whither to go. Thus, mile after mile, they strode along, now across a brawling stream, now along a sunlit road, now adown some sweet forest path, over which the trees met in green and rustling canopy, and at the end of which a herd of startled deer dashed away, with rattle of leaves and crackle of branches. Onward they walked with song and jest and laughter till noontide was passed, when at last they came to the banks of a wide, glassy, and lily-padded stream. Here a broad, beaten path stretched along beside the banks, on which path labored the horses that tugged at the slow-moving barges, laden with barley meal or what not, from the countryside to the many-towered town. But now, in the hot silence of the midday, no horse was seen nor any man besides themselves. Behind them and before them stretched the river, its placid bosom ruffled here and there by the purple dusk of a small breeze.
"Now, good uncle," quoth Will Scarlet at last, when they had walked for a long time beside this sweet, bright river, "just beyond yon bend ahead of us is a shallow ford which in no place is deeper than thy mid-thigh, and upon the other side of the stream is a certain little hermitage hidden amidst the bosky tangle of the thickets wherein dwelleth the Friar of Fountain Dale. Thither will I lead thee, for I know the way; albeit it is not overhard to find."
"Nay," quoth jolly Robin, stopping suddenly, "had I thought that I should have had to wade water, even were it so crystal a stream as this, I had donned other clothes than I have upon me. But no matter now, for after all a wetting will not wash the skin away, and what must be, must. But bide ye here, lads, for I would enjoy this merry adventure alone. Nevertheless, listen well, and if ye hear me sound upon my bugle horn, come quickly." So saying, he turned and left them, striding onward alone.
Robin had walked no farther than where the bend of the road hid his good men from his view, when he stopped suddenly, for he thought that he heard voices. He stood still and listened, and presently heard words passed back and forth betwixt what seemed to be two men, and yet the two voices were wondrously alike. The sound came from over behind the bank, that here was steep and high, dropping from the edge of the road a half a score of feet to the sedgy verge of the river.
"'Tis strange," muttered Robin to himself after a space, when the voices had ceased their talking, "surely there be two people that spoke the one to the other, and yet methinks their voices are mightily alike. I make my vow that never have I heard the like in all my life before. Truly, if this twain are to be judged by their voices, no two peas were ever more alike. I will look into this matter." So saying, he came softly to the river bank and laying him down upon the grass, peered over the edge and down below.
All was cool and shady beneath the bank. A stout osier grew, not straight upward, but leaning across the water, shadowing the spot with its soft foliage. All around grew a mass of feathery ferns such as hide and nestle in cool places, and up to Robin's nostrils came the tender odor of the wild thyme, that loves the moist verges of running streams. Here, with his broad back against the rugged trunk of the willow tree, and half hidden by the soft ferns around him, sat a stout, brawny fellow, but no other man was there. His head was as round as a ball, and covered with a mat of close-clipped, curly black hair that grew low down on his forehead. But his crown was shorn as smooth as the palm of one's hand, which, together with his loose robe, cowl, and string of beads, showed that which his looks never would have done, that he was a friar. His cheeks were as red and shining as a winter crab, albeit they were nearly covered over with a close curly black beard, as were his chin and upper lip likewise. His neck was thick like that of a north country bull, and his round head closely set upon shoulders e'en a match for those of Little John himself. Beneath his bushy black brows danced a pair of little gray eyes that could not stand still for very drollery of humor. No man could look into his face and not feel his heartstrings tickled by the merriment of their look. By his side lay a steel cap, which he had laid off for the sake of the coolness to his crown. His legs were stretched wide apart, and betwixt his knees he held a great pasty compounded of juicy meats of divers kinds made savory with tender young onions, both meat and onions being mingled with a good rich gravy. In his right fist he held a great piece of brown crust at which he munched sturdily, and every now and then he thrust his left hand into the pie and drew it forth full of meat; anon he would take a mighty pull at a great bottle of Malmsey that lay beside him.
"By my faith," quoth Robin to himself, "I do verily believe that this is the merriest feast, the merriest wight, the merriest place, and the merriest sight in all merry England. Methought there was another here, but it must have been this holy man talking to himself."
So Robin lay watching the Friar, and the Friar, all unknowing that he was so overlooked, ate his meal placidly. At last he was done, and, having first wiped his greasy hands upon the ferns and wild thyme (and sweeter napkin ne'er had king in all the world), he took up his flask and began talking to himself as though he were another man, and answering himself as though he were somebody else.
"Dear lad, thou art the sweetest fellow in all the world, I do love thee as a lover loveth his lass. La, thou dost make me shamed to speak so to me in this solitary place, no one being by, and yet if thou wilt have me say so, I do love thee as thou lovest me. Nay then, wilt thou not take a drink of good Malmsey? After thee, lad, after thee. Nay, I beseech thee, sweeten the draught with thy lips (here he passed the flask from his right hand to his left). An thou wilt force it on me so, I must needs do thy bidding, yet with the more pleasure do I so as I drink thy very great health (here he took a long, deep draught). And now, sweet lad, 'tis thy turn next (here he passed the bottle from his left hand back again to his right). I take it, sweet chuck, and here's wishing thee as much good as thou wishest me." Saying this, he took another draught, and truly he drank enough for two.
All this time merry Robin lay upon the bank and listened, while his stomach so quaked with laughter that he was forced to press his palm across his mouth to keep it from bursting forth; for, truly, he would not have spoiled such a goodly jest for the half of Nottinghamshire.
Having gotten his breath from his last draught, the Friar began talking again in this wise: "Now, sweet lad, canst thou not sing me a song? La, I know not, I am but in an ill voice this day; prythee ask me not; dost thou not hear how I croak like a frog? Nay, nay, thy voice is as sweet as any bullfinch; come, sing, I prythee, I would rather hear thee sing than eat a fair feast. Alas, I would fain not sing before one that can pipe so well and hath heard so many goodly songs and ballads, ne'ertheless, an thou wilt have it so, I will do my best. But now methinks that thou and I might sing some fair song together; dost thou not know a certain dainty little catch called 'The Loving Youth and the Scornful Maid'? Why, truly, methinks I have heard it ere now. Then dost thou not think that thou couldst take the lass's part if I take the lad's? I know not but I will try; begin thou with the lad and I will follow with the lass."
Then, singing first with a voice deep and gruff, and anon in one high and squeaking, he blithely trolled the merry catch of
THE LOVING YOUTH AND THE SCORNFUL MAID
"Ah, it's wilt thou come with me, my love?
And it's wilt thou, love, he mine?
For I will give unto thee, my love,
Gay knots and ribbons so fine.
I'll woo thee, love, on my bended knee,
And I'll pipe sweet songs to none but thee.
Then it's hark! hark! hark!
To the winged lark
And it's hark to the cooing dove!
And the bright daffodil
Groweth down by the rill,
So come thou and be my love.
"Now get thee away, young man so fine;
Now get thee away, I say;
For my true love shall never be thine,
And so thou hadst better not stay.
Thou art not a fine enough lad for me,
So I'll wait till a better young man I see.
For it's hark! hark! hark!
To the winged lark,
And it's hark to the cooing dove!
And the bright daffodil
Groweth down by the rill,
Yet never I'll be thy love.
"Then straight will I seek for another fair she,
For many a maid can be found,
And as thou wilt never have aught of me,
By thee will I never be bound.
For never is a blossom in the field so rare,
But others are found that are just as fair.
So it's hark! hark! hark!
To the joyous lark
And it's hark to the cooing dove!
And the bright daffodil
Groweth down by the rill,
And I'll seek me another dear love.
"Young man, turn not so very quick away
Another fair lass to find.
Methinks I have spoken in haste today,
Nor have I made up my mind,
And if thou only wilt stay with me,
I'll love no other, sweet lad, but thee."
Here Robin could contain himself no longer but burst forth into a mighty roar of laughter; then, the holy Friar keeping on with the song, he joined in the chorus, and together they sang, or, as one might say, bellowed:
"So it's hark! hark! hark!
To the joyous lark
And it's hark to the cooing dove!
For the bright daffodil
Groweth down by the rill
And I'll be thine own true love."
So they sang together, for the stout Friar did not seem to have heard Robin's laughter, neither did he seem to know that the yeoman had joined in with the song, but, with eyes half closed, looking straight before him and wagging his round head from side to side in time to the music, he kept on bravely to the end, he and Robin finishing up with a mighty roar that might have been heard a mile. But no sooner had the last word been sung than the holy man seized his steel cap, clapped it on his head, and springing to his feet, cried in a great voice, "What spy have we here? Come forth, thou limb of evil, and I will carve thee into as fine pudding meat as e'er a wife in Yorkshire cooked of a Sunday." Hereupon he drew from beneath his robes a great broadsword full as stout as was Robin's.
"Nay, put up thy pinking iron, friend," quoth Robin, standing up with the tears of laughter still on his cheeks. "Folk who have sung so sweetly together should not fight thereafter." Hereupon he leaped down the bank to where the other stood. "I tell thee, friend," said he, "my throat is as parched with that song as e'er a barley stubble in October. Hast thou haply any Malmsey left in that stout pottle?"
"Truly," said the Friar in a glum voice, "thou dost ask thyself freely where thou art not bidden. Yet I trust I am too good a Christian to refuse any man drink that is athirst. Such as there is o't thou art welcome to a drink of the same." And he held the pottle out to Robin.
Robin took it without more ado and putting it to his lips, tilted his head back, while that which was within said "glug! lug! glug!" for more than three winks, I wot. The stout Friar watched Robin anxiously the while, and when he was done took the pottle quickly. He shook it, held it betwixt his eyes and the light, looked reproachfully at the yeoman, and straightway placed it at his own lips. When it came away again there was nought within it.
"Doss thou know the country hereabouts, thou good and holy man?" asked Robin, laughing.
"Yea, somewhat," answered the other dryly.
"And dost thou know of a certain spot called Fountain Abbey?"
"Then perchance thou knowest also of a certain one who goeth by the name of the Curtal Friar of Fountain Abbey."
"Well then, good fellow, holy father, or whatever thou art," quoth Robin, "I would know whether this same Friar is to be found upon this side of the river or the other."
"That," quoth the Friar, "is a practical question upon which the cunning rules appertaining to logic touch not. I do advise thee to find that out by the aid of thine own five senses; sight, feeling, and what not."
"I do wish much," quoth Robin, looking thoughtfully at the stout priest, "to cross yon ford and strive to find this same good Friar."
"Truly," said the other piously, "it is a goodly wish on the part of one so young. Far be it from me to check thee in so holy a quest. Friend, the river is free to all."
"Yea, good father," said Robin, "but thou seest that my clothes are of the finest and I fain would not get them wet. Methinks thy shoulders are stout and broad; couldst thou not find it in thy heart to carry me across?"
"Now, by the white hand of the holy Lady of the Fountain!" burst forth the Friar in a mighty rage, "dost thou, thou poor puny stripling, thou kiss-my-lady-la poppenjay; thou—thou What shall I call thee? Dost thou ask me, the holy Tuck, to carry thee? Now I swear—" Here he paused suddenly, then slowly the anger passed from his face, and his little eyes twinkled once more. "But why should I not?" quoth he piously.
"Did not the holy Saint Christopher ever carry the stranger across the river? And should I, poor sinner that I am, be ashamed to do likewise? Come with me, stranger, and I will do thy bidding in an humble frame of mind." So saying, he clambered up the bank, closely followed by Robin, and led the way to the shallow pebbly ford, chuckling to himself the while as though he were enjoying some goodly jest within himself.
Having come to the ford, he girded up his robes about his loins, tucked his good broadsword beneath his arm, and stooped his back to take Robin upon it. Suddenly he straightened up. "Methinks," quoth he, "thou'lt get thy weapon wet. Let me tuck it beneath mine arm along with mine own."
"Nay, good father," said Robin, "I would not burden thee with aught of mine but myself."
"Dost thou think," said the Friar mildly, "that the good Saint Christopher would ha' sought his own ease so? Nay, give me thy tool as I bid thee, for I would carry it as a penance to my pride."
Upon this, without more ado, Robin Hood unbuckled his sword from his side and handed it to the other, who thrust it with his own beneath his arm. Then once more the Friar bent his back, and, Robin having mounted upon it, he stepped sturdily into the water and so strode onward, splashing in the shoal, and breaking all the smooth surface into ever- widening rings. At last he reached the other side and Robin leaped lightly from his back.
"Many thanks, good father," quoth he. "Thou art indeed a good and holy man. Prythee give me my sword and let me away, for I am in haste."
At this the stout Friar looked upon Robin for a long time, his head on one side, and with a most waggish twist to his face; then he slowly winked his right eye. "Nay, good youth," said he gently, "I doubt not that thou art in haste with thine affairs, yet thou dost think nothing of mine. Thine are of a carnal nature; mine are of a spiritual nature, a holy work, so to speak; moreover, mine affairs do lie upon the other side of this stream. I see by thy quest of this same holy recluse that thou art a good young man and most reverent to the cloth. I did get wet coming hither, and am sadly afraid that should I wade the water again I might get certain cricks and pains i' the joints that would mar my devotions for many a day to come. I know that since I have so humbly done thy bidding thou wilt carry me back again. Thou seest how Saint Godrick, that holy hermit whose natal day this is, hath placed in my hands two swords and in thine never a one. Therefore be persuaded, good youth, and carry me back again."
Robin Hood looked up and he looked down, biting his nether lip. Quoth he, "Thou cunning Friar, thou hast me fair and fast enow. Let me tell thee that not one of thy cloth hath so hoodwinked me in all my life before. I might have known from thy looks that thou wert no such holy man as thou didst pretend to be."
"Nay," interrupted the Friar, "I bid thee speak not so scurrilously neither, lest thou mayst perchance feel the prick of an inch or so of blue steel."
"Tut, tut," said Robin, "speak not so, Friar; the loser hath ever the right to use his tongue as he doth list. Give me my sword; I do promise to carry thee back straightway. Nay, I will not lift the weapon against thee."
"Marry, come up," quoth the Friar, "I fear thee not, fellow. Here is thy skewer; and get thyself presently ready, for I would hasten back."
So Robin took his sword again and buckled it at his side; then he bent his stout back and took the Friar upon it.
Now I wot Robin Hood had a heavier load to carry in the Friar than the Friar had in him. Moreover he did not know the ford, so he went stumbling among the stones, now stepping into a deep hole, and now nearly tripping over a boulder, while the sweat ran down his face in beads from the hardness of his journey and the heaviness of his load. Meantime, the Friar kept digging his heels into Robin's sides and bidding him hasten, calling him many ill names the while. To all this Robin answered never a word, but, having softly felt around till he found the buckle of the belt that held the Friar's sword, he worked slyly at the fastenings, seeking to loosen them. Thus it came about that, by the time he had reached the other bank with his load, the Friar's sword belt was loose albeit he knew it not; so when Robin stood on dry land and the Friar leaped from his back, the yeoman gripped hold of the sword so that blade, sheath, and strap came away from the holy man, leaving him without a weapon.
"Now then," quoth merry Robin, panting as he spake and wiping the sweat from his brow, "I have thee, fellow. This time that same saint of whom thou didst speak but now hath delivered two swords into my hand and hath stripped thine away from thee. Now if thou dost not carry me back, and that speedily, I swear I will prick thy skin till it is as full of holes as a slashed doublet."
The good Friar said not a word for a while, but he looked at Robin with a grim look. "Now," said he at last, "I did think that thy wits were of the heavy sort and knew not that thou wert so cunning. Truly, thou hast me upon the hip. Give me my sword, and I promise not to draw it against thee save in self-defense; also, I promise to do thy bidding and take thee upon my back and carry thee."
So jolly Robin gave him his sword again, which the Friar buckled to his side, and this time looked to it that it was more secure in its fastenings; then tucking up his robes once more, he took Robin Hood upon his back and without a word stepped into the water, and so waded on in silence while Robin sat laughing upon his back. At last he reached the middle of the ford where the water was deepest. Here he stopped for a moment, and then, with a sudden lift of his hand and heave of his shoulders, fairly shot Robin over his head as though he were a sack of grain.
Down went Robin into the water with a mighty splash. "There," quoth the holy man, calmly turning back again to the shore, "let that cool thy hot spirit, if it may."
Meantime, after much splashing, Robin had gotten to his feet and stood gazing about him all bewildered, the water running from him in pretty little rills. At last he shot the water out of his ears and spat some out of his mouth, and, gathering his scattered wits together, saw the stout Friar standing on the bank and laughing. Then, I wot, was Robin Hood a mad man. "Stay, thou villain!" roared he, "I am after thee straight, and if I do not carve thy brawn for thee this day, may I never lift finger again!" So saying, he dashed, splashing, to the bank.
"Thou needst not hasten thyself unduly," quoth the stout Friar. "Fear not; I will abide here, and if thou dost not cry 'Alack-a-day' ere long time is gone, may I never more peep through the brake at a fallow deer."
And now Robin, having reached the bank, began, without more ado, to roll up his sleeves above his wrists. The Friar, also, tucked his robes more about him, showing a great, stout arm on which the muscles stood out like humps of an aged tree. Then Robin saw, what he had not wotted of before, that the Friar had also a coat of chain mail beneath his gown.
"Look to thyself," cried Robin, drawing his good sword.
"Ay, marry," quoth the Friar, who held his already in his hand. So, without more ado, they came together, and thereupon began a fierce and mighty battle. Right and left, and up and down and back and forth they fought. The swords flashed in the sun and then met with a clash that sounded far and near. I wot this was no playful bout at quarterstaff, but a grim and serious fight of real earnest. Thus they strove for an hour or more, pausing every now and then to rest, at which times each looked at the other with wonder, and thought that never had he seen so stout a fellow; then once again they would go at it more fiercely than ever. Yet in all this time neither had harmed the other nor caused his blood to flow. At last merry Robin cried, "Hold thy hand, good friend!" whereupon both lowered their swords.
"Now I crave a boon ere we begin again," quoth Robin, wiping the sweat from his brow; for they had striven so long that he began to think that it would be an ill-done thing either to be smitten himself or to smite so stout and brave a fellow.
"What wouldst thou have of me?" asked the Friar.
"Only this," quoth Robin; "that thou wilt let me blow thrice upon my bugle horn."
The Friar bent his brows and looked shrewdly at Robin Hood. "Now I do verily think that thou hast some cunning trick in this," quoth he. "Ne'ertheless, I fear thee not, and will let thee have thy wish, providing thou wilt also let me blow thrice upon this little whistle."
"With all my heart," quoth Robin, "so, here goes for one." So saying, he raised his silver horn to his lips and blew thrice upon it, clear and high.
Meantime, the Friar stood watching keenly for what might come to pass, holding in his fingers the while a pretty silver whistle, such as knights use for calling their hawks back to their wrists, which whistle always hung at his girdle along with his rosary.
Scarcely had the echo of the last note of Robin's bugle come winding back from across the river, when four tall men in Lincoln green came running around the bend of the road, each with a bow in his hand and an arrow ready nocked upon the string.
"Ha! Is it thus, thou traitor knave!" cried the Friar. "Then, marry, look to thyself!" So saying, he straightway clapped the hawk's whistle to his lips and blew a blast that was both loud and shrill. And now there came a crackling of the bushes that lined the other side of the road, and presently forth from the covert burst four great, shaggy hounds. "At 'em, Sweet Lips! At 'em, Bell Throat! At 'em, Beauty! At 'em, Fangs!" cried the Friar, pointing at Robin.
And now it was well for that yeoman that a tree stood nigh him beside the road, else had he had an ill chance of it. Ere one could say "Gaffer Downthedale" the hounds were upon him, and he had only time to drop his sword and leap lightly into the tree, around which the hounds gathered, looking up at him as though he were a cat on the eaves. But the Friar quickly called off his dogs. "At 'em!" cried he, pointing down the road to where the yeomen were standing stock still with wonder of what they saw. As the hawk darts down upon its quarry, so sped the four dogs at the yeomen; but when the four men saw the hounds so coming, all with one accord, saving only Will Scarlet, drew each man his goose feather to his ear and let fly his shaft.
And now the old ballad telleth of a wondrous thing that happened, for thus it says, that each dog so shot at leaped lightly aside, and as the arrow passed him whistling, caught it in his mouth and bit it in twain. Now it would have been an ill day for these four good fellows had not Will Scarlet stepped before the others and met the hounds as they came rushing. "Why, how now, Fangs!" cried he sternly. "Down, Beauty! Down, sirrah! What means this?"
At the sound of his voice each dog shrank back quickly and then straightway came to him and licked his hands and fawned upon him, as is the wont of dogs that meet one they know. Then the four yeomen came forward, the hounds leaping around Will Scarlet joyously. "Why, how now!" cried the stout Friar, "what means this? Art thou wizard to turn those wolves into lambs? Ha!" cried he, when they had come still nearer, "can I trust mine eyes? What means it that I see young Master William Gamwell in such company?"
"Nay, Tuck," said the young man, as the four came forward to where Robin was now clambering down from the tree in which he had been roosting, he having seen that all danger was over for the time; "nay, Tuck, my name is no longer Will Gamwell, but Will Scarlet; and this is my good uncle, Robin Hood, with whom I am abiding just now."
"Truly, good master," said the Friar, looking somewhat abashed and reaching out his great palm to Robin, "I ha' oft heard thy name both sung and spoken of, but I never thought to meet thee in battle. I crave thy forgiveness, and do wonder not that I found so stout a man against me."
"Truly, most holy father," said Little John, "I am more thankful than e'er I was in all my life before that our good friend Scarlet knew thee and thy dogs. I tell thee seriously that I felt my heart crumble away from me when I saw my shaft so miss its aim, and those great beasts of thine coming straight at me."
"Thou mayst indeed be thankful, friend," said the Friar gravely. "But, Master Will, how cometh it that thou dost now abide in Sherwood?"
"Why, Tuck, dost thou not know of my ill happening with my father's steward?" answered Scarlet.
"Yea, truly, yet I knew not that thou wert in hiding because of it. Marry, the times are all awry when a gentleman must lie hidden for so small a thing."
"But we are losing time," quoth Robin, "and I have yet to find that same Curtal Friar."
"Why, uncle, thou hast not far to go," said Will Scarlet, pointing to the Friar, "for there he stands beside thee."
"How?" quoth Robin, "art thou the man that I have been at such pains to seek all day, and have got such a ducking for?"
"Why, truly," said the Friar demurely, "some do call me the Curtal Friar of Fountain Dale; others again call me in jest the Abbot of Fountain Abbey; others still again call me simple Friar Tuck."
"I like the last name best," quoth Robin, "for it doth slip more glibly off the tongue. But why didst thou not tell me thou wert he I sought, instead of sending me searching for black moonbeams?"
"Why, truly, thou didst not ask me, good master," quoth stout Tuck; "but what didst thou desire of me?"
"Nay," quoth Robin, "the day groweth late, and we cannot stand longer talking here. Come back with us to Sherwood, and I will unfold all to thee as we travel along."
So, without tarrying longer, they all departed, with the stout dogs at their heels, and wended their way back to Sherwood again; but it was long past nightfall ere they reached the greenwood tree.
Now listen, for next I will tell how Robin Hood compassed the happiness of two young lovers, aided by the merry Friar Tuck of Fountain Dale.