WHEN THE four yeomen had traveled for a long time toward Sherwood again, high noontide being past, they began to wax hungry. Quoth Robin Hood, "I would that I had somewhat to eat. Methinks a good loaf of white bread, with a piece of snow-white cheese, washed down with a draught of humming ale, were a feast for a king."
"Since thou speakest of it," said Will Scarlet, "methinks it would not be amiss myself. There is that within me crieth out, 'Victuals, good friend, victuals!'"
"I know a house near by," said Arthur a Bland, "and, had I but the money, I would bring ye that ye speak of; to wit, a sweet loaf of bread, a fair cheese, and a skin of brown ale."
"For the matter of that, thou knowest I have money by me, good master," quoth Little John.
"Why, so thou hast, Little John," said Robin. "How much money will it take, good Arthur, to buy us meat and drink?"
"I think that six broad pennies will buy food enow for a dozen men," said the Tanner.
"Then give him six pennies, Little John," quoth Robin, "for methinks food for three men will about fit my need. Now get thee gone, Arthur, with the money, and bring the food here, for there is a sweet shade in that thicket yonder, beside the road, and there will we eat our meal."
So Little John gave Arthur the money, and the others stepped to the thicket, there to await the return of the Tanner.
After a time he came back, bearing with him a great brown loaf of bread, and a fair, round cheese, and a goatskin full of stout March beer, slung over his shoulders. Then Will Scarlet took his sword and divided the loaf and the cheese into four fair portions, and each man helped himself. Then Robin Hood took a deep pull at the beer. "Aha!" said he, drawing in his breath, "never have I tasted sweeter drink than this."
After this no man spake more, but each munched away at his bread and cheese lustily, with ever and anon a pull at the beer.
At last Will Scarlet looked at a small piece of bread he still held in his hand, and quoth he, "Methinks I will give this to the sparrows." So, throwing it from him, he brushed the crumbs from his jerkin.
"I, too," quoth Robin, "have had enough, I think." As for Little John and the Tanner, they had by this time eaten every crumb of their bread and cheese.
"Now," quoth Robin, "I do feel myself another man, and would fain enjoy something pleasant before going farther upon our journey. I do bethink me, Will, that thou didst use to have a pretty voice, and one that tuned sweetly upon a song. Prythee, give us one ere we journey farther."
"Truly, I do not mind turning a tune," answered Will Scarlet, "but I would not sing alone."
"Nay, others will follow. Strike up, lad," quoth Robin.
"In that case, 'tis well," said Will Scarlet. "I do call to mind a song that a certain minstrel used to sing in my father's hall, upon occasion. I know no name for it and so can give you none; but thus it is." Then, clearing his throat, he sang:
"In the merry blossom time,
When love longings food the breast,
When the flower is on the lime,
When the small fowl builds her nest,
Sweetly sings the nightingale
And the throstle cock so bold;
Cuckoo in the dewy dale
And the turtle in the word.
But the robin I love dear,
For he singeth through the year.
So I'd have my true love be:
Not to fly
At the nigh
Sign of cold adversity.
"When the spring brings sweet delights,
When aloft the lark doth rise,
Lovers woo o' mellow nights,
And youths peep in maidens' eyes,
That time blooms the eglantine,
Daisies pied upon the hill,
Cowslips fair and columbine,
Dusky violets by the rill.
But the ivy green cloth grow
When the north wind bringeth snow.
Stanch and true!
Thus I'd have her love to be:
Not to die
At the nigh
Breath of cold adversity."
"'Tis well sung," quoth Robin, "but, cousin, I tell thee plain, I would rather hear a stout fellow like thee sing some lusty ballad than a finicking song of flowers and birds, and what not. Yet, thou didst sing it fair, and 'tis none so bad a snatch of a song, for the matter of that. Now, Tanner, it is thy turn."
"I know not," quoth Arthur, smiling, with his head on one side, like a budding lass that is asked to dance, "I know not that I can match our sweet friend's song; moreover, I do verily think that I have caught a cold and have a certain tickling and huskiness in the windpipe."
"Nay, sing up, friend," quoth Little John, who sat next to him, patting him upon the shoulder. "Thou hast a fair, round, mellow voice; let us have a touch of it."
"Nay, an ye will ha' a poor thing," said Arthur, "I will do my best. Have ye ever heard of the wooing of Sir Keith, the stout young Cornish knight, in good King Arthur's time?"
"Methinks I have heard somewhat of it," said Robin; "but ne'ertheless strike up thy ditty and let us hear it, for, as I do remember me, it is a gallant song; so out with it, good fellow."
Thereupon, clearing his throat, the Tanner, without more ado, began to sing:
THE WOOING OF SIR KEITH
"King Arthur sat in his royal hall,
And about on either hand
Was many a noble lordling tall,
The greatest in the land.
"Sat Lancelot with raven locks,
Gawaine with golden hair,
Sir Tristram, Kay who kept the locks,
And many another there.
"And through the stained windows bright,
From o'er the red-tiled eaves,
The sunlight blazed with colored light
On golden helms and greaves.
"But suddenly a silence came
About the Table Round,
For up the hall there walked a dame
Bent nigh unto the ground.
"Her nose was hooked, her eyes were bleared,
Her locks were lank and white;
Upon her chin there grew a beard;
She was a gruesome sight.
"And so with crawling step she came
And kneeled at Arthur's feet;
Quoth Kay, 'She is the foulest dame
That e'er my sight did greet.'
"'O mighty King! of thee I crave
A boon on bended knee';
'Twas thus she spoke. 'What wouldst thou have.'
Quoth Arthur, King, 'of me?'
"Quoth she, 'I have a foul disease
Doth gnaw my very heart,
And but one thing can bring me ease
Or cure my bitter smart.
"'There is no rest, no ease for me
North, east, or west, or south,
Till Christian knight will willingly
Thrice kiss me on the mouth.
"'Nor wedded may this childe have been
That giveth ease to me;
Nor may he be constrained, I ween,
But kiss me willingly.
"'So is there here one Christian knight
Of such a noble strain
That he will give a tortured wight
Sweet ease of mortal pain?'
"'A wedded man,' quoth Arthur, King,
'A wedded man I be
Else would I deem it noble thing
To kiss thee willingly.
"'Now, Lancelot, in all men's sight
Thou art the head and chief
Of chivalry. Come, noble knight,
And give her quick relief.'
"But Lancelot he turned aside
And looked upon the ground,
For it did sting his haughty pride
To hear them laugh around.
"'Come thou, Sir Tristram,' quoth the King.
Quoth he, 'It cannot be,
For ne'er can I my stomach bring
To do it willingly.'
"'Wilt thou, Sir Kay, thou scornful wight?'
Quoth Kay, 'Nay, by my troth!
What noble dame would kiss a knight
That kissed so foul a mouth?'
"'Wilt thou, Gawaine?' 'I cannot, King.'
'Sir Geraint?' 'Nay, not I;
My kisses no relief could bring,
For sooner would I die.'
"Then up and spake the youngest man
Of all about the board,
'Now such relief as Christian can
I'll give to her, my lord.'
"It was Sir Keith, a youthful knight,
Yet strong of limb and bold,
With beard upon his chin as light
As finest threads of gold.
"Quoth Kay, 'He hath no mistress yet
That he may call his own,
But here is one that's quick to get,
As she herself has shown.'
"He kissed her once, he kissed her twice,
He kissed her three times o'er,
A wondrous change came in a trice,
And she was foul no more.
"Her cheeks grew red as any rose,
Her brow as white as lawn,
Her bosom like the winter snows,
Her eyes like those of fawn.
"Her breath grew sweet as summer breeze
That blows the meadows o'er;
Her voice grew soft as rustling trees,
And cracked and harsh no more.
"Her hair grew glittering, like the gold,
Her hands as white as milk;
Her filthy rags, so foul and old,
Were changed to robes of silk.
"In great amaze the knights did stare.
Quoth Kay, 'I make my vow
If it will please thee, lady fair,
I'll gladly kiss thee now.'
"But young Sir Keith kneeled on one knee
And kissed her robes so fair.
'O let me be thy slave,' said he,
'For none to thee compare.'
"She bent her down, she kissed his brow,
She kissed his lips and eyes.
Quoth she, 'Thou art my master now,
My lord, my love, arise!
"'And all the wealth that is mine own,
My lands, I give to thee,
For never knight hath lady shown
Such noble courtesy.
"'Bewitched was I, in bitter pain,
But thou hast set me free,
So now I am myself again,
I give myself to thee.'"
"Yea, truly," quoth Robin Hood, when the Tanner had made an end of singing, "it is as I remember it, a fair ditty, and a ballad with a pleasing tune of a song."
"It hath oftentimes seemed to me," said Will Scarlet, "that it hath a certain motive in it, e'en such as this: That a duty which seemeth to us sometimes ugly and harsh, when we do kiss it fairly upon the mouth, so to speak, is no such foul thing after all."
"Methinks thou art right," quoth Robin, "and, contrariwise, that when we kiss a pleasure that appeareth gay it turneth foul to us; is it not so, Little John? Truly such a thing hath brought thee sore thumps this day. Nay, man, never look down in the mouth. Clear thy pipes and sing us a ditty."
"Nay," said Little John, "I have none as fair as that merry Arthur has trolled. They are all poor things that I know. Moreover, my voice is not in tune today, and I would not spoil even a tolerable song by ill singing."
Upon this all pressed Little John to sing, so that when he had denied them a proper length of time, such as is seemly in one that is asked to sing, he presently yielded. Quoth he, 'Well, an ye will ha' it so, I will give you what I can. Like to fair Will, I have no title to my ditty, but thus it runs:
"O Lady mine, the spring is here,
With a hey nonny nonny;
The sweet love season of the year,
With a ninny ninny nonny;
Now lad and lass
Lie in the grass
That groweth green
With flowers between.
The buck doth rest
The leaves do start,
The cock doth crow,
The breeze doth blow,
And all things laugh in—"
"Who may yon fellow be coming along the road?" said Robin, breaking into the song.
"I know not," quoth Little John in a surly voice. "But this I do know, that it is an ill thing to do to check the flow of a good song."
"Nay, Little John," said Robin, "be not vexed, I prythee; but I have been watching him coming along, bent beneath that great bag over his shoulder, ever since thou didst begin thy song. Look, Little John, I pray, and see if thou knowest him."
Little John looked whither Robin Hood pointed. "Truly," quoth he, after a time, "I think yon fellow is a certain young miller I have seen now and then around the edge of Sherwood; a poor wight, methinks, to spoil a good song about."
"Now thou speakest of him," quoth Robin Hood, "methinks I myself have seen him now and then. Hath he not a mill over beyond Nottingham Town, nigh to the Salisbury road?"
"Thou art right; that is the man," said Little John.
"A good stout fellow," quoth Robin. "I saw him crack Ned o' Bradford's crown about a fortnight since, and never saw I hair lifted more neatly in all my life before."
By this time the young miller had come so near that they could see him clearly. His clothes were dusted with flour, and over his back he carried a great sack of meal, bending so as to bring the whole weight upon his shoulders, and across the sack was a thick quarterstaff. His limbs were stout and strong, and he strode along the dusty road right sturdily with the heavy sack across his shoulders. His cheeks were ruddy as a winter hip, his hair was flaxen in color, and on his chin was a downy growth of flaxen beard.
"A good honest fellow," quoth Robin Hood, "and such an one as is a credit to English yeomanrie. Now let us have a merry jest with him. We will forth as though we were common thieves and pretend to rob him of his honest gains. Then will we take him into the forest and give him a feast such as his stomach never held in all his life before. We will flood his throat with good canary and send him home with crowns in his purse for every penny he hath. What say ye, lads?"
"Truly, it is a merry thought," said Will Scarlet.
"It is well planned," quoth Little John, "but all the saints preserve us from any more drubbings this day! Marry, my poor bones ache so that I—"
"Prythee peace, Little John," quoth Robin. "Thy foolish tongue will get us both well laughed at yet."
"My foolish tongue, forsooth," growled Little John to Arthur a Bland. "I would it could keep our master from getting us into another coil this day."
But now the Miller, plodding along the road, had come opposite to where the yeomen lay hidden, whereupon all four of them ran at him and surrounded him.
"Hold, friend!" cried Robin to the Miller; whereupon he turned slowly, with the weight of the bag upon his shoulder, and looked at each in turn all bewildered, for though a good stout man his wits did not skip like roasting chestnuts.
"Who bids me stay?" said the Miller in a voice deep and gruff, like the growl of a great dog.
"Marry, that do I," quoth Robin; "and let me tell thee, friend, thou hadst best mind my bidding."
"And who art thou, good friend?" said the Miller, throwing the great sack of meal from his shoulder to the ground, "and who are those with thee?"
"We be four good Christian men," quoth Robin, "and would fain help thee by carrying part of thy heavy load."
"I give you all thanks," said the Miller, "but my bag is none that heavy that I cannot carry it e'en by myself."
"Nay, thou dost mistake," quoth Robin, "I meant that thou mightest perhaps have some heavy farthings or pence about thee, not to speak of silver and gold. Our good Gaffer Swanthold sayeth that gold is an overheavy burden for a two-legged ass to carry; so we would e'en lift some of this load from thee."
"Alas!" cried the Miller, "what would ye do to me? I have not about me so much as a clipped groat. Do me no harm, I pray you, but let me depart in peace. Moreover, let me tell you that ye are upon Robin Hood's ground, and should he find you seeking to rob an honest craftsman, he will clip your ears to your heads and scourge you even to the walls of Nottingham.
"In truth I fear Robin Hood no more than I do myself," quoth jolly Robin. "Thou must this day give up to me every penny thou hast about thee. Nay, if thou dost budge an inch I will rattle this staff about thine ears."
"Nay, smite me not!" cried the Miller, throwing up his elbow as though he feared the blow. "Thou mayst search me if thou wilt, but thou wilt find nothing upon me, pouch, pocket, or skin."
"Is it so?" quoth Robin Hood, looking keenly upon him. "Now I believe that what thou tellest is no true tale. If I am not much mistook thou hast somewhat in the bottom of that fat sack of meal. Good Arthur, empty the bag upon the ground; I warrant thou wilt find a shilling or two in the flour."
"Alas!" cried the Miller, falling upon his knees, "spoil not all my good meal! It can better you not, and will ruin me. Spare it, and I will give up the money in the bag."
"Ha!" quoth Robin, nudging Will Scarlet. "Is it so? And have I found where thy money lies? Marry, I have a wondrous nose for the blessed image of good King Harry. I thought that I smelled gold and silver beneath the barley meal. Bring it straight forth, Miller."
Then slowly the Miller arose to his feet, and slowly and unwillingly he untied the mouth of the bag, and slowly thrust his hands into the meal and began fumbling about with his arms buried to the elbows in the barley flour. The others gathered round him, their heads together, looking and wondering what he would bring forth.
So they stood, all with their heads close together gazing down into the sack. But while he pretended to be searching for the money, the Miller gathered two great handfuls of meal. "Ha," quoth he, "here they are, the beauties." Then, as the others leaned still more forward to see what he had, he suddenly cast the meal into their faces, filling their eyes and noses and mouths with the flour, blinding and half choking them. Arthur a Bland was worse off than any, for his mouth was open, agape with wonder of what was to come, so that a great cloud of flour flew down his throat, setting him a-coughing till he could scarcely stand.
Then, while all four stumbled about, roaring with the smart of the meal in their eyeballs, and while they rubbed their eyes till the tears made great channels on their faces through the meal, the Miller seized another handful of flour and another and another, throwing it in their faces, so that even had they had a glimmering of light before they were now as blind as ever a beggar in Nottinghamshire, while their hair and beards and clothes were as white as snow.
Then catching up his great crabstaff, the Miller began laying about him as though he were clean gone mad. This way and that skipped the four, like peas on a drumhead, but they could see neither to defend themselves nor to run away. Thwack! thwack! went the Miller's cudgel across their backs, and at every blow great white clouds of flour rose in the air from their jackets and went drifting down the breeze.
"Stop!" roared Robin at last. "Give over, good friend, I am Robin Hood!"
"Thou liest, thou knave," cried the Miller, giving him a rap on the ribs that sent up a great cloud of flour like a puff of smoke. "Stout Robin never robbed an honest tradesman. Ha! thou wouldst have my money, wouldst thou?" And he gave him another blow. "Nay, thou art not getting thy share, thou long-legged knave. Share and share alike." And he smote Little John across the shoulders so that he sent him skipping half across the road. "Nay, fear not, it is thy turn now, black beard." And he gave the Tanner a crack that made him roar for all his coughing. "How now, red coat, let me brush the dust from thee!" cried he, smiting Will Scarlet. And so he gave them merry words and blows until they could scarcely stand, and whenever he saw one like to clear his eyes he threw more flour in his face. At last Robin Hood found his horn and clapping it to his lips, blew three loud blasts upon it.
Now it chanced that Will Stutely and a party of Robin's men were in the glade not far from where this merry sport was going forward. Hearing the hubbub of voices, and blows that sounded like the noise of a flail in the barn in wintertime, they stopped, listening and wondering what was toward. Quoth Will Stutely, "Now if I mistake not there is some stout battle with cudgels going forward not far hence. I would fain see this pretty sight." So saying, he and the whole party turned their steps whence the noise came. When they had come near where all the tumult sounded they heard the three blasts of Robin's bugle horn.
"Quick!" cried young David of Doncaster. "Our master is in sore need!" So, without stopping a moment, they dashed forward with might and main and burst forth from the covert into the highroad.
But what a sight was that which they saw! The road was all white with meal, and five men stood there also white with meal from top to toe, for much of the barley flour had fallen back upon the Miller.
"What is thy need, master?" cried Will Stutely. "And what doth all this mean?"
"Why," quoth Robin in a mighty passion, "yon traitor felt low hath come as nigh slaying me as e'er a man in all the world. Hadst thou not come quickly, good Stutely, thy master had been dead."
Hereupon, while he and the three others rubbed the meal from their eyes, and Will Stutely and his men brushed their clothes clean, he told them all; how that he had meant to pass a jest upon the Miller, which same had turned so grievously upon them.
"Quick, men, seize the vile Miller!" cried Stutely, who was nigh choking with laughter as were the rest; whereupon several ran upon the stout fellow and seizing him, bound his arms behind his back with bowstrings.
"Ha!" cried Robin, when they brought the trembling Miller to him. "Thou wouldst murder me, wouldst thou? By my faith"—Here he stopped and stood glaring upon the, Miller grimly. But Robin's anger could not hold, so first his eyes twinkled, and then in spite of all he broke into a laugh.
Now when they saw their master laugh, the yeomen who stood around could contain themselves no longer, and a mighty shout of laughter went up from all. Many could not stand, but rolled upon the ground from pure merriment.
"What is thy name, good fellow?" said Robin at last to the Miller, who stood gaping and as though he were in amaze.
"Alas, sir, I am Midge, the Miller's son," said he in a frightened voice.
"I make my vow," quoth merry Robin, smiting him upon the shoulder, "thou art the mightiest Midge that e'er mine eyes beheld. Now wilt thou leave thy dusty mill and come and join my band? By my faith, thou art too stout a man to spend thy days betwixt the hopper and the till."
"Then truly, if thou dost forgive me for the blows I struck, not knowing who thou wast, I will join with thee right merrily," said the Miller.
"Then have I gained this day," quoth Robin, "the three stoutest yeomen in all Nottinghamshire. We will get us away to the greenwood tree, and there hold a merry feast in honor of our new friends, and mayhap a cup or two of good sack and canary may mellow the soreness of my poor joints and bones, though I warrant it will be many a day before I am again the man I was." So saying, he turned and led the way, the rest following, and so they entered the forest once more and were lost to sight.
So that night all was ablaze with crackling fires in the woodlands, for though Robin and those others spoken of, only excepting Midge, the Miller's son, had many a sore bump and bruise here and there on their bodies, they were still not so sore in the joints that they could not enjoy a jolly feast given all in welcome to the new members of the band. Thus with songs and jesting and laughter that echoed through the deeper and more silent nooks of the forest, the night passed quickly along, as such merry times are wont to do, until at last each man sought his couch and silence fell on all things and all things seemed to sleep.
But Little John's tongue was ever one that was not easy of guidance, so that, inch by inch, the whole story of his fight with the Tanner and Robin's fight with Will Scarlet leaked out. And so I have told it that you may laugh at the merry tale along with me.