IT HAS just been told how three unlucky adventures fell upon Robin Hood and Little John all in one day bringing them sore ribs and aching bones. So next we will tell how they made up for those ill happenings by a good action that came about not without some small pain to Robin.
Two days had passed by, and somewhat of the soreness had passed away from Robin Hood's joints, yet still, when he moved of a sudden and without thinking, pain here and there would, as it were, jog him, crying, "Thou hast had a drubbing, good fellow."
The day was bright and jocund, and the morning dew still lay upon the grass. Under the greenwood tree sat Robin Hood; on one side was Will Scarlet, lying at full length upon his back, gazing up into the clear sky, with hands clasped behind his head; upon the other side sat Little John, fashioning a cudgel out of a stout crab- tree limb; elsewhere upon the grass sat or lay many others of the band.
"By the faith of my heart," quoth merry Robin, "I do bethink me that we have had no one to dine with us for this long time. Our money groweth low in the purse, for no one hath come to pay a reckoning for many a day. Now busk thee, good Stutely, and choose thee six men, and get thee gone to Fosse Way or thereabouts, and see that thou bringest someone to eat with us this evening. Meantime we will prepare a grand feast to do whosoever may come the greater honor. And stay, good Stutely. I would have thee take Will Scarlet with thee, for it is meet that he should become acquaint with the ways of the forest."
"Now do I thank thee, good master," quoth Stutely, springing to his feet, "that thou hast chosen me for this adventure. Truly, my limbs do grow slack through abiding idly here. As for two of my six, I will choose Midge the Miller and Arthur a Bland, for, as well thou knowest, good master, they are stout fists at the quarterstaff. Is it not so, Little John?"
At this all laughed but Little John and Robin, who twisted up his face. "I can speak for Midge," said he, "and likewise for my cousin Scarlet. This very blessed morn I looked at my ribs and found them as many colors as a beggar's cloak."
So, having chosen four more stout fellows, Will Stutely and his band set forth to Fosse Way, to find whether they might not come across some rich guest to feast that day in Sherwood with Robin and his band.
For all the livelong day they abided near this highway. Each man had brought with him a good store of cold meat and a bottle of stout March beer to stay his stomach till the homecoming. So when high noontide had come they sat them down upon the soft grass, beneath a green and wide- spreading hawthorn bush, and held a hearty and jovial feast. After this, one kept watch while the others napped, for it was a still and sultry day.
Thus they passed the time pleasantly enow, but no guest such as they desired showed his face in all the time that they lay hidden there. Many passed along the dusty road in the glare of the sun: now it was a bevy of chattering damsels merrily tripping along; now it was a plodding tinker; now a merry shepherd lad; now a sturdy farmer; all gazing ahead along the road, unconscious of the seven stout fellows that lay hidden so near them. Such were the travelers along the way; but fat abbot, rich esquire, or money- laden usurer came there none.
At last the sun began to sink low in the heavens; the light grew red and the shadows long. The air grew full of silence, the birds twittered sleepily, and from afar came, faint and clear, the musical song of the milkmaid calling the kine home to the milking.
Then Stutely arose from where he was lying. "A plague of such ill luck!" quoth he. "Here have we abided all day, and no bird worth the shooting, so to speak, hath come within reach of our bolt. Had I gone forth on an innocent errand, I had met a dozen stout priests or a score of pursy money- lenders. But it is ever thus: the dun deer are never so scarce as when one has a gray goose feather nipped betwixt the fingers. Come, lads, let us pack up and home again, say I."
Accordingly, the others arose, and, coming forth from out the thicket, they all turned their toes back again to Sherwood. After they had gone some distance, Will Stutely, who headed the party, suddenly stopped. "Hist!" quoth he, for his ears were as sharp as those of a five- year-old fox. "Hark, lads! Methinks I hear a sound." At this all stopped and listened with bated breath, albeit for a time they could hear nothing, their ears being duller than Stutely's. At length they heard a faint and melancholy sound, like someone in lamentation.
"Ha!" quoth Will Scarlet, "this must be looked into. There is someone in distress nigh to us here."
"I know not," quoth Will Stutely, shaking his head doubtfully, "our master is ever rash about thrusting his finger into a boiling pot; but, for my part, I see no use in getting ourselves into mischievous coils. Yon is a man's voice, if I mistake not, and a man should be always ready to get himself out from his own pothers."
Then out spake Will Scarlet boldly. "Now out upon thee, to talk in that manner, Stutely! Stay, if thou dost list. I go to see what may be the trouble of this poor creature."
"Nay," quoth Stutely, "thou dost leap so quickly, thou'lt tumble into the ditch. Who said I would not go? Come along, say I." Thus saying, he led the way, the others following, till, after they had gone a short distance, they came to a little opening in the woodland, whence a brook, after gurgling out from under the tangle of overhanging bushes, spread out into a broad and glassy- pebbled pool. By the side of this pool, and beneath the branches of a willow, lay a youth upon his face, weeping aloud, the sound of which had first caught the quick ears of Stutely. His golden locks were tangled, his clothes were all awry, and everything about him betokened sorrow and woe. Over his head, from the branches of the osier, hung a beautiful harp of polished wood inlaid with gold and silver in fantastic devices. Beside him lay a stout ashen bow and half a score of fair, smooth arrows.
"Halloa!" shouted Will Stutely, when they had come out from the forest into the little open spot. "Who art thou, fellow, that liest there killing all the green grass with salt water?"
Hearing the voice, the stranger sprang to his feet and; snatching up his bow and fitting a shaft, held himself in readiness for whatever ill might befall him.
"Truly," said one of the yeomen, when they had seen the young stranger's face, "I do know that lad right well. He is a certain minstrel that I have seen hereabouts more than once. It was only a week ago I saw him skipping across the hill like a yearling doe. A fine sight he was then, with a flower at his ear and a cock's plume stuck in his cap; but now, methinks, our cockerel is shorn of his gay feathers."
"Pah!" cried Will Stutely, coming up to the stranger, "wipe thine eyes, man! I do hate to see a tall, stout fellow so sniveling like a girl of fourteen over a dead tomtit. Put down thy bow, man! We mean thee no harm."
But Will Scarlet, seeing how the stranger, who had a young and boyish look, was stung by the words that Stutely had spoken, came to him and put his hand upon the youth's shoulder. "Nay, thou art in trouble, poor boy!" said he kindly. "Mind not what these fellows have said. They are rough, but they mean thee well. Mayhap they do not understand a lad like thee. Thou shalt come with us, and perchance we may find a certain one that can aid thee in thy perplexities, whatsoever they may be."
"Yea, truly, come along," said Will Stutely gruffly. "I meant thee no harm, and may mean thee some good. Take down thy singing tool from off this fair tree, and away with us."
The youth did as he was bidden and, with bowed head and sorrowful step, accompanied the others, walking beside Will Scarlet. So they wended their way through the forest. The bright light faded from the sky and a glimmering gray fell over all things. From the deeper recesses of the forest the strange whispering sounds of night- time came to the ear; all else was silent, saving only for the rattling of their footsteps amid the crisp, dry leaves of the last winter. At last a ruddy glow shone before them here and there through the trees; a little farther and they came to the open glade, now bathed in the pale moonlight. In the center of the open crackled a great fire, throwing a red glow on all around. At the fire were roasting juicy steaks of venison, pheasants, capons, and fresh fish from the river. All the air was filled with the sweet smell of good things cooking.
The little band made its way across the glade, many yeomen turning with curious looks and gazing after them, but none speaking or questioning them. So, with Will Scarlet upon one side and Will Stutely upon the other, the stranger came to where Robin Hood sat on a seat of moss under the greenwood tree, with Little John standing beside him.
"Good even, fair friend," said Robin Hood, rising as the other drew near. "And hast thou come to feast with me this day?"
"Alas! I know not," said the lad, looking around him with dazed eyes, for he was bewildered with all that he saw. "Truly, I know not whether I be in a dream," said he to himself in a low voice.
"Nay, marry," quoth Robin, laughing, "thou art awake, as thou wilt presently find, for a fine feast is a- cooking for thee. Thou art our honored guest this day."
Still the young stranger looked about him, as though in a dream. Presently he turned to Robin. "Methinks," said he, "I know now where I am and what hath befallen me. Art not thou the great Robin Hood?"
"Thou hast hit the bull's eye," quoth Robin, clapping him upon the shoulder. "Men hereabouts do call me by that name. Sin' thou knowest me, thou knowest also that he who feasteth with me must pay his reckoning. I trust thou hast a full purse with thee, fair stranger."
"Alas!" said the stranger, "I have no purse nor no money either, saving only the half of a sixpence, the other half of which mine own dear love doth carry in her bosom, hung about her neck by a strand of silken thread."
At this speech a great shout of laughter went up from those around, whereat the poor boy looked as he would die of shame; but Robin Hood turned sharply to Will Stutely. "Why, how now," quoth he, "is this the guest that thou hast brought us to fill our purse? Methinks thou hast brought but a lean cock to the market."
"Nay, good master," answered Will Stutely, grinning, "he is no guest of mine; it was Will Scarlet that brought him thither."
Then up spoke Will Scarlet, and told how they had found the lad in sorrow, and how he had brought him to Robin, thinking that he might perchance aid him in his trouble. Then Robin Hood turned to the youth, and, placing his hand upon the other's shoulder, held him off at arm's length, scanning his face closely.
"A young face," quoth he in a low voice, half to himself, "a kind face, a good face. 'Tis like a maiden's for purity, and, withal, the fairest that e'er mine eyes did see; but, if I may judge fairly by thy looks, grief cometh to young as well as to old." At these words, spoken so kindly, the poor lad's eyes brimmed up with tears. "Nay, nay," said Robin hastily, "cheer up, lad; I warrant thy case is not so bad that it cannot be mended. What may be thy name?"
"Allen a Dale is my name, good master."
"Allen a Dale," repeated Robin, musing. "Allen a Dale. It doth seem to me that the name is not altogether strange to mine ears. Yea, surely thou art the minstrel of whom we have been hearing lately, whose voice so charmeth all men. Dost thou not come from the Dale of Rotherstream, over beyond Stavely?"
"Yea, truly," answered Allan, "I do come thence."
"How old art thou, Allan?" said Robin.
"I am but twenty years of age."
"Methinks thou art overyoung to be perplexed with trouble," quoth Robin kindly; then, turning to the others, he cried, "Come, lads, busk ye and get our feast ready; only thou, Will Scarlet, and thou, Little John, stay here with me."
Then, when the others had gone, each man about his business, Robin turned once more to the youth. "Now, lad," said he, "tell us thy troubles, and speak freely. A flow of words doth ever ease the heart of sorrows; it is like opening the waste weir when the mill dam is overfull. Come, sit thou here beside me, and speak at thine ease."
Then straightway the youth told the three yeomen all that was in his heart; at first in broken words and phrases, then freely and with greater ease when he saw that all listened closely to what he said. So he told them how he had come from York to the sweet vale of Rother, traveling the country through as a minstrel, stopping now at castle, now at hall, and now at farmhouse; how he had spent one sweet evening in a certain broad, low farmhouse, where he sang before a stout franklin and a maiden as pure and lovely as the first snowdrop of spring; how he had played and sung to her, and how sweet Ellen o' the Dale had listened to him and had loved him. Then, in a low, sweet voice, scarcely louder than a whisper, he told how he had watched for her and met her now and then when she went abroad, but was all too afraid in her sweet presence to speak to her, until at last, beside the banks of Rother, he had spoken of his love, and she had whispered that which had made his heartstrings quiver for joy. Then they broke a sixpence between them, and vowed to be true to one another forever.
Next he told how her father had discovered what was a- doing, and had taken her away from him so that he never saw her again, and his heart was sometimes like to break; how this morn, only one short month and a half from the time that he had seen her last, he had heard and knew it to be so, that she was to marry old Sir Stephen of Trent, two days hence, for Ellen's father thought it would be a grand thing to have his daughter marry so high, albeit she wished it not; nor was it wonder that a knight should wish to marry his own sweet love, who was the most beautiful maiden in all the world.
To all this the yeomen listened in silence, the clatter of many voices, jesting and laughing, sounding around them, and the red light of the fire shining on their faces and in their eyes. So simple were the poor boy's words, and so deep his sorrow, that even Little John felt a certain knotty lump rise in his throat.
"I wonder not," said Robin, after a moment's silence, "that thy true love loved thee, for thou hast surely a silver cross beneath thy tongue, even like good Saint Francis, that could charm the birds of the air by his speech."
"By the breath of my body," burst forth Little John, seeking to cover his feelings with angry words, "I have a great part of a mind to go straightway and cudgel the nasty life out of the body of that same vile Sir Stephen. Marry, come up, say I- what a plague- does an old weazen think that tender lasses are to be bought like pullets o' a market day? Out upon him!--I-- but no matter, only let him look to himself."
Then up spoke Will Scarlet. "Methinks it seemeth but ill done of the lass that she should so quickly change at others' bidding, more especially when it cometh to the marrying of a man as old as this same Sir Stephen. I like it not in her, Allan."
"Nay," said Allan hotly, "thou dost wrong her. She is as soft and gentle as a stockdove. I know her better than anyone in all the world. She may do her father's bidding, but if she marries Sir Stephen, her heart will break and she will die. My own sweet dear, I--" He stopped and shook his head, for he could say nothing further.
While the others were speaking, Robin Hood had been sunk in thought. "Methinks I have a plan might fit thy case, Allan," said he. "But tell me first, thinkest thou, lad, that thy true love hath spirit enough to marry thee were ye together in church, the banns published, and the priest found, even were her father to say her nay?"
"Ay, marry would she," cried Allan eagerly.
"Then, if her father be the man that I take him to be, I will undertake that he shall give you both his blessing as wedded man and wife, in the place of old Sir Stephen, and upon his wedding morn. But stay, now I bethink me, there is one thing reckoned not upon-- the priest. Truly, those of the cloth do not love me overmuch, and when it comes to doing as I desire in such a matter, they are as like as not to prove stiff- necked. As to the lesser clergy, they fear to do me a favor because of abbot or bishop.
"Nay," quoth Will Scarlet, laughing, "so far as that goeth, I know of a certain friar that, couldst thou but get on the soft side of him, would do thy business even though Pope Joan herself stood forth to ban him. He is known as the Curtal Friar of Fountain Abbey, and dwelleth in Fountain Dale."
"But," quoth Robin, "Fountain Abbey is a good hundred miles from here. An we would help this lad, we have no time to go thither and back before his true love will be married. Nought is to be gained there, coz."
"Yea," quoth Will Scarlet, laughing again, "but this Fountain Abbey is not so far away as the one of which thou speakest, uncle. The Fountain Abbey of which I speak is no such rich and proud place as the other, but a simple little cell; yet, withal, as cosy a spot as ever stout anchorite dwelled within. I know the place well, and can guide thee thither, for, though it is a goodly distance, yet methinks a stout pair of legs could carry a man there and back in one day."
"Then give me thy hand, Allan," cried Robin, "and let me tell thee, I swear by the bright hair of Saint AElfrida that this time two days hence Ellen a Dale shall be thy wife. I will seek this same Friar of Fountain Abbey tomorrow day, and I warrant I will get upon the soft side of him, even if I have to drub one soft."
At this Will Scarlet laughed again. "Be not too sure of that, good uncle," quoth he, "nevertheless, from what I know of him, I think this Curtal Friar will gladly join two such fair lovers, more especially if there be good eating and drinking afoot thereafter."
But now one of the band came to say that the feast was spread upon the grass; so, Robin leading the way, the others followed to where the goodly feast was spread. Merry was the meal. Jest and story passed freely, and all laughed till the forest rang again. Allan laughed with the rest, for his cheeks were flushed with the hope that Robin Hood had given him.
At last the feast was done, and Robin Hood turned to Allan, who sat beside him. "Now, Allan," quoth he, "so much has been said of thy singing that we would fain have a taste of thy skill ourselves. Canst thou not give us something?"
"Surely," answered Allan readily; for he was no third- rate songster that must be asked again and again, but said "yes" or "no" at the first bidding; so, taking up his harp, he ran his fingers lightly over the sweetly sounding strings, and all was hushed about the cloth. Then, backing his voice with sweet music on his harp, he sang:
MAY ELLEN'S WEDDING
(Giving an account of how she was beloved by a fairy prince, who took her to his own home.)
"_May Ellen sat beneath a thorn And in a shower around The blossoms fell at every breeze Like snow upon the ground, And in a lime tree near was heard The sweet song of a strange, wild bird. "O sweet, sweet, sweet, O piercing sweet, O lingering sweet the strain! May Ellen's heart within her breast Stood still with blissful pain: And so, with listening, upturned face, She sat as dead in that fair place.
" `Come down from out the blossoms, bird! Come down from out the tree, And on my heart I'll let thee lie, And love thee tenderly!' Thus cried May Ellen, soft and low, From where the hawthorn shed its snow.
"Down dropped the bird on quivering wing, From out the blossoming tree, And nestled in her snowy breast. `My love! my love!' cried she; Then straightway home, 'mid sun and flower, She bare him to her own sweet bower.
"The day hath passed to mellow night, The moon floats o'er the lea, And in its solemn, pallid light A youth stands silently: A youth of beauty strange and rare, Within May Ellen's bower there.
"He stood where o'er the pavement cold The glimmering moonbeams lay. May Ellen gazed with wide, scared eyes, Nor could she turn away, For, as in mystic dreams we see A spirit, stood he silently.
"All in a low and breathless voice, `Whence comest thou?' said she; `Art thou the creature of a dream, Or a vision that I see?' Then soft spake he, as night winds shiver Through straining reeds beside the river.
" `I came, a bird on feathered wing, From distant Faeryland Where murmuring waters softly sing Upon the golden strand, Where sweet trees are forever green; And there my mother is the queen.'
. . . . . . . "No more May Ellen leaves her bower To grace the blossoms fair; But in the hushed and midnight hour They hear her talking there, Or, when the moon is shining white, They hear her singing through the night.
" `Oh, don thy silks and jewels fine,' May Ellen's mother said, `For hither comes the Lord of Lyne And thou this lord must wed.' May Ellen said, `It may not be. He ne'er shall find his wife in me.'
"Up spoke her brother, dark and grim: `Now by the bright blue sky, E'er yet a day hath gone for him Thy wicked bird shall die! For he hath wrought thee bitter harm, By some strange art or cunning charm.'
"Then, with a sad and mournful song, Away the bird did fly, And o'er the castle eaves, and through The gray and windy sky. `Come forth!' then cried the brother grim, `Why dost thou gaze so after him?'
"It is May Ellen's wedding day, The sky is blue and fair, And many a lord and lady gay In church are gathered there. The bridegroom was Sir Hugh the Bold, All clad in silk and cloth of gold.
"In came the bride in samite white With a white wreath on her head; Her eyes were fixed with a glassy look, Her face was as the dead, And when she stood among the throng, She sang a wild and wondrous song.
"Then came a strange and rushing sound Like the coming wind doth bring, And in the open windows shot Nine swans on whistling wing, And high above the heads they flew, In gleaming fight the darkness through.
"Around May Ellen's head they flew In wide and windy fight, And three times round the circle drew. The guests shrank in affright, And the priest beside the altar there, Did cross himself with muttered prayer.
"But the third time they flew around, Fair Ellen straight was gone, And in her place, upon the ground, There stood a snow- white swan. Then, with a wild and lovely song, It joined the swift and winged throng.
"There's ancient men at weddings been, For sixty years and more, But such a wondrous wedding day, They never saw before. But none could check and none could stay, The swans that bore the bride away_."
Not a sound broke the stillness when Allan a Dale had done, but all sat gazing at the handsome singer, for so sweet was his voice and the music that each man sat with bated breath, lest one drop more should come and he should lose it.
"By my faith and my troth," quoth Robin at last, drawing a deep breath, "lad, thou art- Thou must not leave our company, Allan! Wilt thou not stay with us here in the sweet green forest? Truly, I do feel my heart go out toward thee with great love."
Then Allan took Robin's hand and kissed it. "I will stay with thee always, dear master," said he, "for never have I known such kindness as thou hast shown me this day."
Then Will Scarlet stretched forth his hand and shook Allan's in token of fellowship, as did Little John likewise. And thus the famous Allan a Dale became one of Robin Hood's band.