HOW THE BISHOP WENT OUTLAW-HUNTING
The Bishop he came to the old woman's house,
And called with furious mood,
My lord of Hereford had been so deeply smitten in his pride, that he had lost no time in summoning a considerable body of the Sheriff's men, offering to double the reward if Robin Hood could be come upon. This company was now at his heels, and after the first shock of mutual surprise, the Bishop gave an exultant shout and spurred upon the outlaw.
It was too late for Robin to retreat by the way he had come, but quick as a flash he sprang to one side of the road, dodged under some bushes, and disappeared so suddenly that his pursuers thought he had truly been swallowed up by magic.
"After him!" yelled the Bishop; "some of you beat up the woods around him, while the rest of us will keep on the main road and head him off on the other side!"
For, truth to tell, the Bishop did not care to trust his bones away from the highroad.
About a mile away, on the other side of this neck of woods, wherein Robin had been trapped, was a little tumbledown cottage. 'Twas where the widow lived, whose three sons had been rescued. Robin remembered the cottage and saw his one chance to escape.
Doubling in and out among the underbrush and heather with the agility of a hare, he soon came out of the wood in the rear of the cottage, and thrust his head through a tiny window.
The widow, who had been at her spinning wheel, rose up with a cry of alarm.
"Quiet, good mother! 'Tis I, Robin Hood. Where are your three sons?"
"They should be with you, Robin. Well do you know that. Do they not owe their lives to you?"
"If that be so, I come to seek payment of the debt," said Robin in a breath. "The Bishop is on my heels with many of his men."
"I'll cheat the Bishop and all!" cried the woman quickly. "Here, Robin, change your raiment with me, and we will see if my lord knows an old woman when he sees her."
"Good!" said Robin. "Pass your gray cloak out the window, and also your spindle and twine; and I will give you my green mantle and everything else down to my bow and arrows."
While they were talking, Robin had been nimbly changing clothes with the old woman, through the window, and in a jiffy he stood forth complete, even to the spindle and twine.
Presently up dashed the Bishop and his men, and, at sight of the cottage and the old woman, gave pause. The crone was hobbling along with difficulty, leaning heavily upon a gnarled stick and bearing the spindle on her other arm. She would have gone by the Bishop's company, while muttering to herself, but the Bishop ordered one of his men to question her. The soldier laid his hand upon her shoulder.
"Mind your business!" croaked the woman, "or I'll curse ye!"
"Come, come, my good woman," said the soldier, who really was afraid of her curses. "I'll not molest you. But my lord Bishop of Hereford wants to know if you have seen aught of the outlaw, Robin Hood?"
"And why shouldn't I see him?" she whined. "Where's the King or law to prevent good Robin from coming to see me and bring me food and raiment? That's more than my lord Bishop will do, I warrant ye!"
"Peace, woman!" said the Bishop harshly. "We want none of your opinions. But we'll take you to Barnesdale and burn you for a witch if you do not instantly tell us when you last saw Robin Hood."
"Mercy, good my lord!" chattered the crone, falling on her knees.
"Robin is there in my cottage now, but you'll never take him alive."
"We'll see about that," cried the Bishop triumphantly. "Enter the cottage, my men. Fire it, if need be. But I'll give a purse of gold pieces, above the reward, to the man who captures the outlaw alive."
The old woman, being released, went on her way slowly. But it might have been noticed that the farther she got away from the company and the nearer to the edge of the woods, the swifter and straighter grew her pace. Once inside the shelter of the forest she broke into a run of surprising swiftness.
"Gadzooks!" exclaimed Little John who presently spied her. "Who comes here? Never saw I witch or woman run so fast. Methinks I'll send an arrow close over her head to see which it is."
"O hold your hand! hold your hand!" panted the supposed woman. "'Tis I, Robin Hood. Summon the yeomen and return with me speedily. We have still another score to settle with my lord of Hereford."
When Little John could catch his breath from laughing, he winded his horn.
"Now, mistress Robin," quoth he, grinning. "Lead on! We'll be close to your heels."
Meanwhile, back at the widow's cottage the Bishop was growing more furious every moment. For all his bold words, he dared not fire the house, and the sturdy door had thus far resisted all his men's efforts.
"Break it down! Break it down!" he shouted, "and let me soon see who will fetch out that traitor, Robin Hood!"
At last the door crashed in and the men stood guard on the threshold. But not one dared enter for fear a sharp arrow should meet him halfway.
"Here he is!" cried one keen-eyed fellow, peering in. "I see him in the corner by the cupboard. Shall we slay him with our pikes?"
"Nay," said the Bishop, "take him alive if you can. We'll make the biggest public hanging of this that the shire ever beheld."
But the joy of the Bishop over his capture was short lived. Down the road came striding the shabby figure of the old woman who had helped him set the trap; and very wrathy was she when she saw that the cottage door had been battered in.
"Stand by, you lazy rascals!" she called to the soldiers. "May all the devils catch ye for hurting an old woman's hut. Stand by, I say!"
"Hold your tongue!" ordered the Bishop. "These are my men and carrying out my orders."
"God-mercy!" swore the beldame harshly. "Things have come to a pretty pass when our homes may be treated like common gaols. Couldn't all your men catch one poor forester without this ado? Come! clear out, you and your robber, on the instant, or I'll curse every mother's son of ye, eating and drinking and sleeping!"
"Seize on the hag!" shouted the Bishop, as soon as he could get in a word. "We'll see about a witch's cursing. Back to town she shall go, alongside of Robin Hood."
"Not so fast, your worship!" she retorted, clapping her hands.
And at the signal a goodly array of greenwood men sprang forth from all sides of the cottage, with bows drawn back threateningly. The Bishop saw that his men were trapped again, for they dared not stir. Nathless, he determined to make a fight for it.
"If one of you but budge an inch toward me, you rascals," he cried, "it shall sound the death of your master, Robin Hood! My men have him here under their pikes, and I shall command them to kill him without mercy."
"Faith, I should like to see the Robin you have caught," said a clear voice from under the widow's cape; and the outlaw chief stood forth with bared head, smilingly. "Here am I, my lord, in no wise imperiled by your men's fierce pikes. So let us see whom you have been guarding so well."
The old woman who, in the garb of Robin Hood, had been lying quiet in the cottage through all the uproar, jumped up nimbly at this. In the bald absurdity of her disguise she came to the doorway and bowed to the Bishop.
"Give you good-den, my lord Bishop," she piped in a shrill voice; "and what does your Grace at my humble door? Do you come to bless me and give me alms?"
"Aye, that does he," answered Robin. "We shall see if his saddle-bags contain enough to pay you for that battered door."
"Now by all the saints--" began the Bishop.
"Take care; they are all watching you," interrupted Robin; "so name them not upon your unchurchly lips. But I will trouble you to hand over that purse of gold you had saved to pay for my head."
"I'll see you hanged first!" raged the Bishop, stating no more than what would have been so, if he could do the ordering of things. "Have at them, my men, and hew them down in their tracks!"
"Hold!" retorted Robin. "See how we have you at our mercy." And aiming a sudden shaft he shot so close to the Bishop's head that it carried away both his hat and the skull-cap which he always wore, leaving him quite bald.
The prelate turned as white as his shiny head and clutched wildly at his ears. He thought himself dead almost.
"Help! Murder!" he gasped. "Do not shoot again! Here's your purse of gold!"
And without waiting for further parley he fairly bolted down the road.
His men being left leaderless had nothing for it but to retreat after him, which they did in sullen order, covered by the bows of the yeomen. And thus ended the Bishop of Hereford's great outlaw-hunt in the forest.