"Give me my bent bow in my hand,
And a broad arrow I'll let flee;
And where this arrow is taken up,
There shall my grave digg'd be."
Now by good rights this story should end with the wedding of Robin Hood and Maid Marian; for do not many pleasant tales end with a wedding and the saying, "and they lived happy ever after."
But this is a true account—in so far as we can find the quaint old ballads which tell of it—and so we must follow one more of these songs and learn how Robin, after living many years longer, at last came to seek his grave. And the story of it runs in this wise.
Robin Hood and his men, now the Royal Archers, went with King Richard of the Lion Heart through England settling certain private disputes which had arisen among the Norman barons while the King was gone to the Holy Land. Then the King proceeded amid great pomp and rejoicing to the palace at London, and Robin, the new Earl of Huntingdon, brought his Countess thither, where she became one of the finest ladies of the Court.
The Royal Archers were now divided into two bands, and one-half of them were retained in London, while the other half returned to Sherwood and Barnesdale, there to guard the King's preserves.
Several months passed by, and Robin began to chafe under the restraint of city life. He longed for the fresh pure air of the greenwood, and the rollicking society of his yeomen. One day, upon seeing some lads at archery practice upon a green, he could not help but lament, saying, "Woe is me! I fear my hand is fast losing its old time cunning at the bow-string!"
Finally he became so distraught that he asked leave to travel in foreign lands, and this was granted him. He took Maid Marian with him, and together they went through many strange countries. Finally in an Eastern land a great grief came upon Robin. Marian sickened of a plague and died. They had been married but five years, and Robin felt as though all the light had gone out of his life.
He wandered about the world for a few months longer, trying to forget his grief, then came back to the court, at London, and sought some commission in active service. But unluckily, Richard was gone again upon his adventures, and Prince John, who acted as Regent, had never been fond of Robin. He received him with a sarcastic smile.
"Go forth into the greenwood," said he, coldly, "and kill some more of the King's deer. Belike, then, the King will make you Prime Minister, at the very least, upon his return."
The taunt fired Robin's blood. He had been in a morose mood, ever since his dear wife's death. He answered Prince John hotly, and the Prince bade his guards seize him and cast him into the Tower.
After lying there for a few weeks, he was released by the faithful Stutely and the remnant of the Royal Archers, and all together they fled the city and made their way to the greenwood. There Robin blew the old familiar call, which all had known and loved so well. Up came running the remainder of the band, who had been Royal Foresters, and when they saw their old master they embraced his knees and kissed his hands, and fairly cried for joy that he had come again to them. And one and all forswore fealty to Prince John, and lived quietly with Robin in the greenwood, doing harm to none and only awaiting the time when King Richard should come again.
But King Richard came not again, and would never need his Royal Guard more. Tidings presently reached them, of how he had met his death in a foreign land, and how John reigned as King in his stead. The proof of these events followed soon after, when there came striding through the glade the big, familiar form of Little John.
"Art come to arrest us?" called out Robin, as he ran forward and embraced his old comrade.
"Nay, I am not come as the Sheriff of Nottingham, thanks be," answered Little John. "The new King has deposed me, and 'tis greatly to my liking, for I have long desired to join you here again in the greenwood."
Then were the rest of the band right glad at this news, and toasted Little John royally.
The new King waged fierce war upon the outlaws, soon after this, and sent so many scouting parties into Sherwood and Barnesdale that Robin and his men left these woods for a time and went into Derbyshire, near Haddon Hall. A curious pile of stone is shown to this day as the ruins of Robin's Castle, where the bold outlaw is believed to have defied his enemies for a year or more. At any rate King John found so many troubles of his own, after a time, that he ceased troubling the outlaws.
But in one of the last sorties Robin was wounded. The cut did not seem serious, and healed over the top; but it left a lurking fever. Daily his strength ebbed away from him, until he was in sore distress.
One day as he rode along on horseback, near Kirklees Abbey, he was seized with so violent a rush of blood to the head that he reeled and came near falling from his saddle. He dismounted weakly and knocked at the Abbey gate. A woman shrouded in black peered forth.
"Who are you that knock here? For we allow no man within these walls," she said.
"Open, for the love of Heaven!" he begged. "I am Robin Hood, ill of a fever and in sore straits."
At the name of Robin Hood the woman started back, and then, as though bethinking herself, unbarred the door and admitted him. Assisting his fainting frame up a flight of stairs and into a front room, she loosed his collar and bathed his face until he was revived. Then she spoke hurriedly in a low voice:
"Your fever will sink, if you are bled. See, I have provided a lancet and will open your veins, while you lie quiet."
So she bled him, and he fell into a stupor which lasted nearly all that day, so that he awoke weak and exhausted from loss of blood.
Now there is a dispute as to this abbess who bled him. Some say that she did it in all kindness of heart; while others aver that she was none other than the former Sheriff's daughter, and found her revenge at last in this cruel deed.
Be that as it may, Robin's eyes swam from very weakness when he awoke.
He called wearily for help, but there was no response. He looked longingly through the window at the green of the forest; but he was too weak to make the leap that would be needed to reach the ground.
He then bethought him of his horn,
Which hung down at his knee;
He set his horn unto his mouth,
And blew out weak blasts three.
Little John was out in the forest near by, or the blasts would never have been heard. At their sound he sprang to his feet.
"Woe! woe!" he cried, "I fear my master is near dead, he blows so wearily!"
So he made haste and came running up to the door of the abbey, and knocked loudly for admittance. Failing to get reply, he burst in the door with frenzied blows of his mighty fist, and soon came running up to the room where Robin lay, white and faint. "Alas, dear master!" cried Little John in great distress; "I fear you have met with treachery! If that be so, grant me one last boon, I pray."
"What is it?" asked Robin.
"Let me burn Kirklees-Hall with fire, and all its nunnery."
"Nay, good comrade," answered Robin Hood gently, "I cannot grant such a boon. The dear Christ bade us forgive all our enemies. Moreover, you know I never hurt woman in all my life; nor man when in woman's company."
He closed his eyes and fell back, so that his friend thought him dying. The great tears fell from the giant's eyes and wet his master's hand. Robin slowly rallied and seized his comrade's outstretched arm.
"Lift me up, good Little John," he said brokenly, "I want to smell the air from the good greenwood once again. Give me my good yew bow—here—here-and fix a broad arrow upon the string. Out yonder—among the oaks—where this arrow shall fall—let them dig my grave."
And with one last mighty effort he sped his shaft out of the open window, straight and true, as in the days of old, till it struck the largest oak of them all and dropped in the shadow of the trees. Then he fell back upon the sobbing breast of his devoted friend.
"'Tis the last!" he murmured, "tell the brave hearts to lay me there with the green sod under my head and feet. And—let them lay—my bent bow at my side, for it has made sweet music in mine ears."
He rested a moment, and Little John scarce knew that he was alive. But on a sudden Robin's eye brightened, and he seemed to think himself back once more with the band in the open forest glade. He struggled to rise.
"Ha! 'tis a fine stag, Will! And Allan, thou never didst thrum the harp more sweetly. How the light blazes! And Marian!—'tis my Marian—come at last!"
So died the body of Robin Hood; but his spirit lives on through the centuries in the deathless ballads which are sung of him, and in the hearts of men who love freedom and chivalry.
They buried him where his last arrow had fallen, and they set a stone to mark the spot. And on the stone were graven these words:
"Here underneath his little stone
Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon;
Never archer as he so good,
And people called him Robin Hood.
Such outlaws as he and his men
Will England never see again."