Forth of the greenwood are they gone,
Yea, all courageously,
Resolving to bring Stutely home,
Or every man to die.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. The whole face of nature seemed gay as if in despite of the tragedy which was soon to take place in the walls of Nottingham town. The gates were not opened upon this day, for the Sheriff was determined to carry through the hanging of Will Stutely undisturbed. No man, therefore, was to be allowed entrance from without, all that morning and until after the fatal hour of noon, when Will's soul was to be launched into eternity.
Early in the day Robin had drawn his men to a point, as near as he dared, in the wood where he could watch the road leading to the East gate. He himself was clad in a bright scarlet dress, while his men, a goodly array, wore their suits of sober Lincoln green. They were armed with broadswords, and 'each man carried his bow and a full quiver of new arrows, straightened and sharpened cunningly by Middle, the tinker. Over their greenwood dress, each man had thrown a rough mantle, making him look not unlike a friar.
"I hold it good, comrades," then said Robin Hood, "to tarry here in hiding for a season while we sent some one forth to obtain tidings. For, in sooth, 'twill work no good to march upon the gates if they be closed."
"Look, master," quoth one of the widow's sons. "There comes a palmer along the road from the town. Belike he can tell us how the land ties, and if Stutely be really in jeopardy. Shall I go out and engage him in speech?"
"Go," answered Robin.
So Stout Will went out from the band while the others hid themselves and waited. When he had come close to the palmer, who seemed a slight, youngish man, he doffed his hat full courteously and said,
"I crave your pardon, holy man, but can you tell me tidings of Nottingham town? Do they intend to put an outlaw to death this day?"
"Yea," answered the palmer sadly. "'Tis true enough, sorry be the day. I have passed the very spot where the gallows-tree is going up. 'Tis out upon the roadway near the Sheriff's castle. One, Will Stutely, is to be hung thereon at noon, and I could not bear the sight, so came away."
The palmer spoke in a muffled voice; and as his hood was pulled well over his head, Stout Will could not discern what manner of man he was. Over his shoulder he carried a long staff, with the fashion of a little cross at one end; and he had sandaled feet like any monk. Stout Will notice idly that the feet were very small and white, but gave no second thought to the matter.
"Who will shrive the poor wretch, if you have come away from him?" he asked reproachfully.
The question seemed to put a new idea into the palmer's head. He turned so quickly that he almost dropped his hood.
"Do you think that I should undertake this holy office?"
"By Saint Peter and the Blessed Virgin, I do indeed! Else, who will do it? The Bishop and all his whining clerks may be there, but not one would say a prayer for his soul."
"But I am only a poor palmer," the other began hesitatingly.
"Nathless, your prayers are as good as any and better than some," replied Will.
"Right gladly would I go," then said the palmer; "but I fear me I cannot get into the city. You may know that the gates are fast locked, for this morning, to all who would come in, although they let any pass out who will."
"Come with me," said Stout Will, "and my master will see that you pass through the gates."
So the palmer pulled his cloak still closer about him and was brought before Robin Hood, to whom he told all he knew of the situation. He ended with,
"If I may make so bold, I would not try to enter the city from this gate, as 'tis closely guarded since yesterday. But on the far side, no attack is looked for."
"My thanks, gentle palmer," quoth Robin, "your suggestion is good, and we will deploy to the gate upon the far side."
So the men marched silently but quickly until they were near to the western gate. Then Arthur-a-Bland asked leave to go ahead as a scout, and quietly made his way to a point under the tower by the gate. The moat was dry on this side, as these were times of peace, and Arthur was further favored by a stout ivy vine which grew out from an upper window.
Swinging himself up boldly by means of this friendly vine, he crept through the window and in a moment more had sprung upon the warder from behind and gripped him hard about the throat. The warder had no chance to utter the slightest sound, and soon lay bound and gagged upon the floor; while Arthur-a-Bland slipped himself into his uniform and got hold of his keys.
'Twas the work of but a few moments more to open the gates, let down the bridge, and admit the rest of the band; and they lot inside the town so quietly that none knew of their coming. Fortune also favored them in the fact that just at this moment the prison doors had been opened for the march of the condemned man, and every soldier and idle lout in the market-lace had trooped thither to see him pass along.
Presently out came Will Stutely with firm step but dejected air. He looked eagerly to the right hand and to the left, but saw none of the band. And though more than one curious face betrayed friendship in it, he knew there could be no aid from such source.
Will's hands were tied behind his back. He marched between rows of soldiery, and the Sheriff and the Bishop brought up the rear on horses, looking mightily puffed up and important over the whole proceeding. He would show these sturdy rebels—would the Sheriff—whose word was law! He knew that the gates were tightly fastened; and further he believed that the outlaws would hardly venture again within the walls, even if the gates were open. And as he looked around at the fivescore archers and pikemen who lined the way to the gallows, he smiled with grim satisfaction.
Seeing that no help was nigh, the prisoner paused at the foot of the scaffold and spoke in a firm tone to the Sheriff.
"My lord Sheriff," quoth he, "since I must needs die, grant me one boon; for my noble master ne'er yet had a man that was hanged on a tree:
Give me a sword all in my hand,
And let me be unbound,
And with thee and thy men will I fight
Till I lie dead on the ground."
But the Sheriff would by no means listen to his request; but swore that he should be hanged a shameful death, and not die by the sword valiantly.
"O no, no, no," the Sheriff said,
"Thou shalt on the gallows die,
Aye, and so shall they master too,
If ever it in me lie."
"O dastard coward!" Stutely cried,
"Faint-hearted peasant slave!
If ever my master do thee meet,
Thou shalt thy payment have!"
"My noble master thee doth scorn,
And all thy cowardly crew,
Such silly imps unable are
Bold Robin to subdue."
This brave speech was not calculated to soothe the Sheriff. "To the gallows with him!" he roared, giving a sign to the hangman; and Stutely was pushed into the rude cart which was to bear him under the gallows until his neck was leashed. Then the cart would be drawn roughly away and the unhappy man would swing out over the tail of it into another world.
But at this moment came a slight interruption. A boyish-looking palmer stepped forth, and said:
"Your Excellency, let me at least shrive this poor wretch's soul ere it be hurled into eternity."
"No!" shouted the Sheriff, "let him die a dog's death!"
"Then his damnation will rest upon you," said the monk firmly. "You, my lord Bishop, cannot stand by and see this wrong done."
The Bishop hesitated. Like the Sheriff, he wanted no delay; but the people were beginning to mutter among themselves and move about uneasily. He said a few words to the Sheriff, and the latter nodded to the monk ungraciously.
"Perform your duty, Sir Priest," quoth he, "and be quick about it!" Then turning to his soldiers. "Watch this palmer narrowly," he commanded. "Belike he is in league with those rascally outlaws."
But the palmer paid no heed to his last words. He began to tell his beads quickly, and to speak in a low voice to the condemned man. But he did not touch his bonds.
Then came another stir in the crowd, and one came pushing through the press of people and soldiery to come near to the scaffold.
"I pray you, Will, before you die, take leave of all your friends!" cried out the well-known voice of Much, the miller's son.
At the word the palmer stepped back suddenly and looked to one side. The Sheriff also knew the speaker.
"Seize him!" he shouted. "'Tis another of the crew. He is the villain cook who once did rob me of my silver plate. We'll make a double hanging of this!"
"Not so fast, good master Sheriff," retorted Much. "First catch your man and then hang him. But meanwhile I would like to borrow my friend of you awhile."
And with one stroke of his keen hunting-knife he cut the bonds which fastened the prisoner's arms, and Stutely leaped lightly from the cart.
"Treason!" screamed the Sheriff, getting black with rage. "Catch the varlets!"
So saying he spurred his horse fiercely forward, and rising in his stirrups brought down his sword with might and main at Much's head. But his former cook dodged nimbly underneath the horse and came up on the other side, while the weapon whistled harmlessly in the air.
"Nay, Sir Sheriff!" he cried, "I must e'en borrow your sword for the friend I have borrowed."
Thereupon he snatched the weapon deftly from the Sheriff's hand.
"Here, Stutely!" said he, "the Sheriff has lent you his own sword. Back to back with me, man, and we'll teach these knaves a trick or two!"
Meanwhile the soldiers had recovered from their momentary surprise and had flung themselves into the fray. A clear bugle-note had also sounded the same which the soldiers had learned to dread. 'Twas the rallying note of the green wood men.
Cloth yard shafts began to hurtle through the air, and Robin and his men cast aside their cloaks and sprang forward crying:
"Lockesley! Lockesley! a rescue! a rescue!"
On the instant, a terrible scene of hand to hand fighting followed. The Sheriff's men, though once more taken by surprise, were determined to sell this rescue dearly. They packed in closely and stubbornly about the condemned man and Much and the palmer, and it was only by desperate rushes that the foresters made an opening in the square. Ugly cuts and bruises were exchanged freely; and lucky was the man who escaped with only these. Many of the onlookers, who had long hated the Sheriff and felt sympathy for Robin's men, also plunged into the conflict—although they could not well keep out of it, in sooth!—and aided the rescuers no little.
At last with a mighty onrush, Robin cleaved a way through the press to the scaffold itself, and not a second too soon; for two men with pikes had leaped upon the cart, and were in the act of thrusting down upon the palmer and Will Stutely. A mighty upward blow from Robin's good blade sent the pike flying from the hand of one, while a well-directed arrow from the outskirt pierced the other fellow's throat.
"God save you, master!" cried Will Stutely joyfully. "I had begun to fear that I would never see your face again."
"A rescue!" shouted the outlaws afresh, and the soldiery became fainthearted and 'gan to give back. But the field was not yet won, for they retreated in close order toward the East gate, resolved to hem the attackers within the city walls. Here again, however, they were in error, since the outlaws did not go out by their nearest gate. They made a sally in that direction, in order to mislead the soldiery, then abruptly turned and headed for the West gate, which was still guarded by Arthur-a-Bland.
The Sheriff's men raised an exultant shout at this, thinking they had the enemy trapped. Down they charged after them, but the outlaws made good their lead, and soon got through the gate and over the bridge which had been let down by Arthur-a-Bland.
Close upon their heels came the soldiers—so close, that Arthur had no time to close the gate again or raise the bridge. So he threw away his key and fell in with the yeomen, who now began their retreat up the long hill to the woods.
On this side the town, the road leading to the forest was long and almost unprotected. The greenwood men were therefore in some distress, for the archers shot at them from loop-holes in the walls, and the pikemen were reinforced by a company of mounted men from the castle. But the outlaws retreated stubbornly and now and again turned to hold their pursuers at bay by a volley of arrows. Stutely was in their midst, fighting with the energy of two; and the little palmer was there also, but took no part save to keep close to Robin's side and mutter silent words as though in prayer.
Robin put his horn to his lips to sound a rally, when a flying arrow from the enemy pierced his hand. The palmer gave a little cry and sprang forward. The Sheriff, who followed close with the men on horseback, also saw the wound and gave a great huzza.
"Ha! you will shoot no more bows for a season, master outlaw!" he shouted.
"You lie!" retorted Robin fiercely, wrenching the shaft from his hand despite the streaming blood; "I have saved one shot for you all this day. Here take it!"
And he fitted the same arrow, which had wounded him, upon the string of his bow and let it fly toward the Sheriff's head. The Sheriff fell forward upon his horse in mortal terror, but not so quickly as to escape unhurt. The sharp point laid bare a deep gash upon his scalp and must certainly have killed him if it had come closer.
The fall of the Sheriff discomfited his followers for the moment, and Robin's men took this chance to speed on up the hill. The palmer had whipped out a small white handkerchief and tried to staunch Robin's wound as they went. At sight of the palmer's hand, Robin turned with a start, and pushed back the other's hood.
"Marian!" he exclaimed, "you here!"
It was indeed Maid Marian, who had helped save Will, and been in the stress of battle from the first. Now she hung her head as though caught in wrong.
"I had to come, Robin," she said simply, "and I knew you would not let me come, else."
Their further talk was interrupted by an exclamation from Will Scarlet.
"By the saints, we are trapped!" he said, and pointed to the top of the hill, toward which they were pressing.
There from out a gray castle poured a troop of men, armed with pikes and axes, who shouted and came running down upon them. At the same instant, the Sheriff's men also renewed the pursuit.
"Alas!" cried poor Marian, "we are undone! There is no way of escape!"
"Courage, dear heart!" said Robin, drawing her close to him. But his own spirit sank as he looked about for some outlet.
Then—oh, joyful sight!—he recognized among the foremost of those coming from the castle the once doleful knight, Sir Richard of the Lea. He was smiling now, and greatly excited.
"A Hood! a Hood!" he cried; "a rescue! a rescue!" Never were there more welcome sights and sounds than these. With a great cheer the outlaws raced up the hill to meet their new friends; and soon the whole force had gained the shelter of the castle. Bang! went the bridge as it swung back, with great clanking of chains. Clash! went one great door upon the other, as they shut in the outlaw band, and shut out the Sheriff, who dashed up at the head of his men, his bandaged face streaked with blood and inflamed with rage.