OW ROBIN HOOD had no liking for a company of idle men about him, and sent off Little John and Will Scarlett to the great road known as Watling Street, with orders to hide among the trees and wait till some adventure might come to them; and if they took captive earl or baron, abbot or knight, he was to be brought unharmed back to Robin Hood.
But all along Watling Street the road was bare; white and hard it lay in the sun, without the tiniest cloud of dust to show that a rich company might be coming: east and west the land lay still.
At length, just where a side path turned into the broad highway, there rode a knight, and a sorrier man than he never sat a horse on summer day. One foot only was in the stirrup, the other hung carelessly by his side; his head was bowed, the reins dropped loose, and his horse went on as he would. At so sad a sight the hearts of the outlaws were filled with pity, and Little John fell on his knees and bade the knight welcome in the name of his master.
"Who is your master?" asked the knight.
"Robin Hood," answered Little John.
"I have heard much good of him," replied the knight, "and will go with you gladly."
Then they all set off together, tears running down the knight's cheeks as he rode, but he said nothing, neither was anything said to him. And in this wise they came to Robin Hood.
"Welcome, Sir Knight," cried he, "and thrice welcome, for I waited to break my fast till you or some other had come to me."
"God save you, good Robin," answered the knight, and after they had washed themselves in the stream they sat down to dine off bread, with flesh of the King's deer, and swans and pheasants. "Such a dinner have I not had for three weeks and more," said the knight. "And if I ever come again this way, good Robin, I will give you as fine a dinner as you have given me."
"I thank you," replied Robin, "my dinner is always welcome; still, I am none so greedy but I can wait for it. But before you go, pay me, I pray you, for the food which you have had. It was never the custom for a yeoman to pay for a knight."
"My bag is empty," said the knight, "save for ten shillings only."
"Go, Little John, and look in his wallet," said Robin, "and, Sir Knight, if in truth you have no more, not one penny will I take; nay, I will give you all that you shall need."
So Little John spread out the knight's mantle, and opened the bag, and therein lay ten shillings and naught besides.
"What tidings, Little John?" cried his master.
"Sir, the knight speaks truly," said Little John.
"Then tell me, Sir Knight, whether it is your own ill doings which have brought you to this sorry pass."
"For an hundred years my fathers have dwelt in the forest," answered the knight, "and four hundred pounds might they spend yearly. But within two years misfortune has befallen me, and my wife and children also."
"How did this evil come to pass?" asked Robin.
"Through my own folly," answered the knight, "and because of my great love I bore my son, who would never be guided of my counsel, and slew, ere he was twenty years old, a knight of Lancaster and his squire. For their deaths I had to pay a large sum, which I could not raise without giving my lands in pledge to the rich Abbot of St. Mary's. If I cannot bring him the money by a certain day they will be lost to me for ever."
"What is the sum?" asked Robin. "Tell me truly."
"It is four hundred pounds," said the knight.
"And what will you do if you lose your lands?" asked Robin again.
"Hide myself over the sea," said the knight, "and bid farewell to my friends and country. There is no better way open to me."
At this tears fell from his eyes, and he turned him to depart. "Good day, my friend," he said to Robin, "I cannot pay you what I should--" But Robin held him fast. "Where are your friends?" asked he.
"Sir, they have all forsaken me since I became poor, and they turn away their heads if we meet upon the road, though when I was rich they were ever in my castle."
When Little John and Will Scarlett and the rest heard this they wept for very shame and fury.
"Little John," said Robin, "go to my treasure chest, and bring me thence four hundred pounds. And be sure you count it truly."
So Little John went, and Will Scarlett, and they brought back the money.
"Sir," said Little John, when Robin had counted it and found it no more and no less, "look at his clothes, how thin they are! You have stores of garments, green and scarlet, in your coffers-no merchant in England can boast the like. I will measure some out with my bow." And thus he did.
"Master," spoke Little John again, "there is still something else. You must give him a horse, that he may go as beseems his quality to the Abbey."
"Take the grey horse," said Robin, "and put a new saddle on it, and take likewise a good palfrey and a pair of boots, with gilt spurs on them. And as it were a shame for a knight to ride by himself on this errand, I will lend you Little John as squire--perchance he may stand you in yeoman's stead."
"When shall we meet again?" asked the knight.
"This day twelve months," said Robin, "under the greenwood tree."
Then the knight rode on his way, with Little John behind him, and as he went he thought of Robin Hood and his men, and blessed them for the goodness they had shown towards him.
"To-morrow," he said to Little John, "I must be at the Abbey of St. Mary, which is in the city of York, for if I am but so much as a day late my lands are lost for ever, and though I were to bring the money I should not be suffered to redeem them."