HOW LITTLE JOHN ENTERED THE SHERIFF'S SERVICE
List and hearken, gentlemen,
There was a fellow, one Eric of Lincoln, who was thought to be the finest man with the staff for miles around. His feats were sung about in ballads through all the shire. A great boaster was he withal, and to-day he strutted about on one of these corner stages, and vaunted of his prowess, and offered to crack any man's crown for a shilling. Several had tried their skill with Eric, but he had soon sent them spinning in no gentle manner, amid the jeers and laughter of the onlookers.
A beggar-man sat over against Eric's stage and grinned every time a pate was cracked. He was an uncouth fellow, ragged and dirty and unshaven. Eric caught sight of his leering face at one of his boasts--for there was a lull in the game, because no man else wanted to come within reach of Eric's blows. Eric, I say, noticed the beggar-man grinning at him rather impudently, and turned toward him sharply.
"How now, you dirty villain!" quoth he, "mend your manners to your betters, or, by our Lady, I'll dust your rags for you."
The beggar-man still grinned. "I am always ready to mend my manners to my betters," said he, "but I am afraid you cannot teach me any better than you can dust my jacket."
"Come up! Come up!" roared the other, flourishing his staff.
"That will I," said the beggar, getting up slowly and with difficulty. "It will pleasure me hugely to take a braggart down a notch, an some good man will lend me a stout quarter-staff."
At this a score of idlers reached him their staves--being ready enough to see another man have his head cracked, even if they wished to save their own--and he took the stoutest and heaviest of all. He made a sorry enough figure as he climbed awkwardly upon the stage, but when he had gained it, he towered full half a head above the other, for all his awkwardness. Nathless, he held his stick so clumsily that the crowd laughed in great glee.
Now each man took his place and looked the other up and down, watching warily for an opening. Only a moment stood they thus, for Eric, intent on teaching this rash beggar a lesson and sweeping him speedily off the stage, launched forth boldly and gave the other a sounding crack on the shoulder. The beggar danced about, and made as though he would drop his staff from very pain, while the crowd roared and Eric raised himself for another crushing blow. But just then the awkward beggar came to life. Straightening himself like a flash, he dealt Eric a back-handed blow, the like of which he had never before seen. Down went the boaster to the floor with a sounding thump, and the fickle people yelled and laughed themselves purple; for it was a new sight to see Eric of Lincoln eating dust.
But he was up again almost as soon as he had fallen, and right quickly retreated to his own ringside to gather his wits and watch for an opening. He saw instantly that he had no easy antagonist, and he came in cautiously this time.
And now those who stood around saw the merriest game of quarter-staff that was ever played inside the walls of Nottingham town. Both men were on their guard and fenced with fine skill, being well matched in prowess. Again and again did Eric seek to force an opening under the other's guard, and just as often were his blows parried. The beggar stood sturdily in his tracks contenting himself with beating off the attack. For a long time their blows met like the steady crackling of some huge forest fire, and Eric strove to be wary, for he now knew that the other had no mean wits or mettle. But he grew right mad at last, and began to send down blows so fierce and fast that you would have sworn a great hail-storm was pounding on the shingles over your head. Yet he never so much as entered the tall beggar's guard.
Then at last the stranger saw his chance and changed his tune of fighting. With one upward stroke he sent Eric's staff whirling through the air. With another he tapped Eric on the head; and, with a third broad swing, ere the other could recover himself, he swept him clear off the stage, much as you would brush a fly off the window pane.
Now the people danced and shouted and made so much ado that the shop-keepers left their stalls and others came running from every direction. The victory of the queer beggar made him immensely popular. Eric had been a great bully, and many had suffered defeat and insult at his hands. So the ragged stranger found money and food and drink everywhere at his disposal, and he feasted right comfortably till the afternoon.
Then a long bow contest came on, and to it the beggar went with some of his new friends. It was held in the same arena that Robin had formerly entered; and again the Sheriff and lords and ladies graced the scene with their presence, while the people crowded to their places.
When the archers had stepped forward, the herald rose and proclaimed the rules of the game: how that each man should shoot three shots, and to him who shot best the prize of a yoke of fat steers should belong. A dozen keen-eyed bowmen were there, and among them some of the best fellows in the Forester's and Sheriff's companies. Down at the end of the line towered the tall beggar-man, who must needs twang a bow-string with the best of them.
The Sheriff noted his queer figure and asked: "Who is that ragged fellow?"
"'Tis he that hath but now so soundly cracked the crown of Eric of Lincoln," was the reply.
The shooting presently began, and the targets soon showed a fine reckoning. Last of all came the beggar's turn.
"By your leave," he said loudly, "I'd like it well to shoot with any other man here present at a mark of my own placing." And he strode down the lists with a slender peeled sapling which he stuck upright in the ground. "There," said he, "is a right good mark. Will any man try it?"
But not an archer would risk his reputation on so small a target.
Whereupon the beggar drew his bow with seeming carelessness and split the wand with his shaft.
"Long live the beggar!" yelled the bystanders.
The Sheriff swore a full great oath, and said: "This man is the best archer that ever yet I saw." And he beckoned to him, and asked him: "How now, good fellow, what is your name, and in what country were you born?"
"In Holderness I was born," the man replied; "men call me Reynold Greenleaf."
"You are a sturdy fellow, Reynold Greenleaf, and deserve better apparel than that you wear at present. Will you enter my service? I will give you twenty marks a year, above your living, and three good suits of clothes."
"Three good suits, say you? Then right gladly will I enter your service, for my back has been bare this many a long day."
Then Reynold turned him about to the crowd and shouted: "Hark ye, good people, I have entered the Sheriff's service, and need not the yoke of steers for prize. So take them for yourselves, to feast withal."
At this the crowd shouted more merrily than ever, and threw their caps high into the air. And none so popular a man had come to Nottingham town in many a long day as this same Reynold Greenleaf.
Now you may have guessed, by this time, who Reynold Greenleaf really was; so I shall tell you that he was none other than Little John. And forth went he to the Sheriff's house, and entered his service. But it was a sorry day for the Sheriff when he got his new man. For Little John winked his shrewd eye and said softly to himself: "By my faith, I shall be the worst servant to him that ever yet had he!"
Two days passed by. Little John, it must be confessed, did not make a good servant. He insisted upon eating the Sheriff's best bread and drinking his best wine, so that the steward waxed wroth. Nathless the Sheriff held him in high esteem, and made great talk of taking him along on the next hunting trip.
It was now the day of the banquet to the butchers, about which we have already heard. The banquet hall, you must know, was not in the main house, but connected with it by a corridor. All the servants were bustling about making preparations for the feast, save only Little John, who must needs lie abed the greater part of the day. But he presented himself at last, when the dinner was half over; and being desirous of seeing the guests for himself he went into the hall with the other servants to pass the wine. First, however, I am afraid that some of the wine passed his own lips while he went down the corridor. When he entered the banqueting hall, whom should he see but Robin Hood himself. We can imagine the start of surprise felt by each of these bold fellows upon seeing the other in such strange company. But they kept their secrets, as we have seen, and arranged to meet each other that same night. Meanwhile, the proud Sheriff little knew that he harbored the two chief outlaws of the whole countryside beneath his roof.
After the feast was over and night was beginning to advance, Little John felt faint of stomach and remembered him that he had eaten nothing all that day. Back went he to the pantry to see what eatables were laid by. But there, locking up the stores for the night, stood the fat steward.
"Good Sir Steward," said Little John, "give me to dine, for it is long for Greenleaf to be fasting."
The steward looked grimly at him and rattled the keys at his girdle.
"Sirrah lie-abed," quoth he, "'tis late in the day to be talking of eating. Since you have waited thus long to be hungry, you can e'en take your appetite back to bed again."
"Now by mine appetite, that will I not do," cried Little John. "Your own paunch of fat would be enough for any bear to sleep on through the winter. But my stomach craves food, and food it shall have!"
Saying this he brushed past the steward and tried the door, but it was locked fast; whereat the fat steward chuckled and jangled his keys again.
Then was Little John right mad, and he brought down his huge fist on the door-panel with a sledge-hammer blow that shivered an opening you could thrust your hand into. Little John stooped and peered through the hole to see what food lay within reach, when crack! went the steward's keys upon his crown, and the worthy danced around him playing a tattoo that made Little John's ears ring. At this he turned upon the steward and gave him such a rap that his back went nigh in two, and over went the fat fellow rolling on the floor.
"Lie there," quoth Little John, "till ye find strength to go to bed. Meanwhile, I must be about my dinner." And he kicked open the buttery door without ceremony and brought to light a venison pasty and cold roast pheasant--goodly sights to a hungry man. Placing these down on a convenient shelf he fell to with right good will. So Little John ate and drank as much as he would.
Now the Sheriff had in his kitchen a cook, a stout man and bold, who heard the rumpus and came in to see how the land lay. There sat Little John eating away for dear life, while the fat steward was rolled under the table like a bundle of rags.
"I make my vow!" said the cook, "you are a shrewd hind to dwell thus in a household, and ask thus to dine." So saying he laid aside his spit and drew a good sword that hung at his side.
"I make my vow!" said Little John, "you are a bold man and hardy to come thus between me and my meat. So defend yourself and see that you prove the better man." And he drew his own sword and crossed weapons with the cook.
Then back and forth they clashed with sullen sound. The old ballad which tells of their fight says that they thought nothing for to flee, but stiffly for to stand. There they fought sore together, two miles away and more, but neither might the other harm for the space of a full hour.
"I make my vow!" cried Little John, "you are the best swordsman that ever yet I saw. What say you to resting a space and eating and drinking good health with me. Then we may fall to again with the swords."
"Agreed!" said the cook, who loved good fare as well as a good fight; and they both laid by their swords and fell to the food with hearty will. The venison pasty soon disappeared, and the roast pheasant flew at as lively a rate as ever the bird itself had sped. Then the warriors rested a space and patted their stomachs, and smiled across at each other like bosom friends; for a man when he as dined looks out pleasantly upon the world.
"And now good Reynold Greenleaf," said the cook, "we may as well settle this brave fight we have in hand."
"A true saying," rejoined the other, "but first tell me, friend--for I protest you are my friend henceforth--what is the score we have to settle?"
"Naught save who can handle the sword best," said the cook. "By my troth I had thought to carve you like a capon ere now."
"And I had long since thought to shave your ears," replied Little John. "This bout we can settle in right good time. But just now I and my master have need of you, and you can turn your stout blade to better service than that of the Sheriff."
"Whose service would that be?" asked the cook.
"Mine," answered a would-be butcher entering the room, "and I am Robin Hood."