"Come, children all, and listen a while,
And a story to you I'll unfold;
I'll tell you how Robin Hood served the Bishop,
When he robbed him of his gold."
The Bishop of Hereford was very angry with Robin Hood for the trick he had played him at Allan-a-Dale's wedding. He was so angry that he would have been pleased if any one had caught or killed Robin. But no one did. The wicked people were nearly all afraid of Robin and his brave men. The people who were kind and good loved him.
One day the Bishop had to take a great deal of money to a monastery. A monastery is a large house in which a number of good men live together. In those days, however, the men who lived in the monasteries were not always good. Sometimes they were very wicked indeed.
To reach the monastery the Bishop had to pass through part of Sherwood Forest. He felt sure he would meet Robin Hood, so he gathered together all his servants, and as many soldiers as he could. He hoped either to kill Robin or to take him prisoner, and bring him to Nottingham to have him hanged there.
He hoped most to take him prisoner, because he knew his friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham, was Robin's greatest enemy, and had promised to give a large sum of money to any one who would take him prisoner.
It was a bright, sunshiny day in the middle of June when the Bishop set out. It was cool and shady under the great leafy trees of the forest. Wild roses and pink and white morning-glory trailed across the path. The banks and ditches were gay with bright yellow moneywort and tansy. Sweetbrier and honeysuckle scented the air. Birds sang and twittered in the branches, and all the world was full of beauty.
Into the still and peaceful forest rode the Bishop and his men. Soon the woody paths were filled with the noise of neighing and trampling horses. The clang of swords, and the clatter and jingle of steel harness and armour, frightened the deer in their lairs, and the birdies in their nests.
But it was a splendid sight to see all those bold soldiers in shining armour riding along. The Bishop rode in the middle of them, wearing a gorgeous robe, trimmed with lace, over his armour.
Robin loved to roam in the forest, and he would often leave his men and wander off by himself. This morning everything was so bright and beautiful that he went on and on, hearing nothing but the song of birds, seeing nothing but the trees and flowers.
Suddenly he saw the Bishop and his men riding down a wide forest path. They, too, saw him quite plainly, for he was standing right in the middle of the path, looking up into a tree, listening to a blackbird singing.
"O what shall I do, said Robin Hood then,
If the Bishop he doth take me?
No Mercy he'll show unto me, I know,
But hangèd I shall be."
One man singly, however brave he might be, could not fight against all these soldiers. Nor could Robin call his men by blowing on his horn, as he generally did, when he was in danger. They were so far away, that long before they could reach him, Robin knew that he would be killed or taken prisoner.
It was a dreadful moment. With wild shouts of triumph the Bishop and his men were riding down upon him. There was only one thing to do. And Robin did it. He ran away.
Fast and faster he ran, closely followed by the Bishop's men. In and out among the trees he went, twisting and turning. After him came the soldiers, shouting wildly. He led them to the thickest part of the wood. On they came, trampling down the ferns, and crushing the pretty wildflowers.
Closer and closer grew the trees; narrower and narrower the pathways. Horses stumbled over roots or trailing branches of ivy, sending their riders sprawling on the ground. There they lay, unable to rise, because of the weight of their armour. The overhanging branches of the trees caught others, and knocked them off their horses, which galloped away riderless and terrified far into the forest.
It was a mad and breathless chase. Robin knew every path and secret way in all the woods. The trees seemed to bend down to hide him as he passed, or spread out their tough roots to trip up the horses of the Bishop's men.
Robin's suit, too, of Lincoln green, was almost the colour of the leaves in summer, and that helped him. The men found it more and more difficult to follow, and at last they lost him altogether.
He could hear their shouts growing fainter and fainter in the distance, but still he ran on. He knew the danger was not yet over. In the very thickest part of the wood he came to an old woman's cottage. He often sent presents to this poor old woman, so he was sure she would help him.
Knocking loudly on the door, he called out, "Open, open quickly and let me in."
The old woman hobbled to the door and opened it as fast as she could.
"Why, who art thou? said the old woman,
Come tell to me for good.
I am an outlaw as many do know,
And my name is Robin Hood.
And yonder's the Bishop and all his men;
And if that I taken be,
Then day and night he'll work me spite,
And hangèd I shall be."
"Come in," said the old woman, plucking him by the sleeve. "Come in quickly."
Robin stepped into the house. The old woman shut and bolted the door after him.
"If you are really Robin Hood," said she, looking at him hard, "I'll do anything I can to hide you from the Bishop and his men."
"I swear to you, my good woman, that I am truly Robin Hood. If you help me, neither my men nor I will ever forget it."
"I believe you, sir, I believe you. You have an honest face," answered the old woman. "And I'm not likely to forget all the kindness I have had from you and your Merry Men. Why, no later than last Saturday night you sent me a pair of shoes and some fine woollen stockings. See," she added, putting out one foot, "I'm wearing the shoes at this very minute. But haste ye lad, haste ye," she went on more quickly, "where will ye hide?"
"In your grey gown," said Robin with a laugh.
The old woman looked at him in astonishment. "In my grey gown?" she said.
"Yes," said Robin; "give me a grey dress and a big white cap like those you wear. Dressed in them I can go safely through the wood till I meet my men. If I do chance to come across the Bishop and his soldiers I will hobble along like any old woman, and they will never stop to look at me. Then do you put on my suit of Lincoln green. If the Bishop follows me here, as I think he will, he will mistake you for me. Let him take you prisoner, and do not be afraid, for my good fellows and I will soon be back to rescue you from him."
"Bless your life, sir, what a head you have," said the old woman laughing. "I doubt if my old mutch ever covered so great a wit before."
Then she hobbled off, to get the clothes for Robin, as fast as ever she could.
When he was dressed, she gave him a spindle and flax in one hand and a stout walking-stick in the other.
"And when Robin was so arrayed,
He went straight to his company;
With his spindle and twine, he oft looked behind
For the Bishop and his company."
Once he met several of the Bishop's men who were now scattered through the woods, hunting everywhere for him. But he bent his back and hobbled slowly along like a very old woman, muttering and mumbling to himself till they were out of sight. So he got safely past.
It took him a long time to get to where his own men were. For one thing he found it was very difficult to walk in a dress. On the other hand, he was afraid to go too fast in case he should be seen by any of the Bishop's people.
At last he got to the place where he had left his men. There stood Little John looking out for him.
Robin waved his stick and shouted, but he was so well disguised that even his great friend did not know him.
"Look at that queer creature," said Little John to Will Scarlet who stood beside him. "I believe it's a witch. I'll shoot an arrow at her and see."
Little John knew that if it was a witch she would mount upon her stick and fly away over the trees as soon as she saw the arrow coming, and he wanted to see her do it.
He laid an arrow to his bow, and was just going to shoot when Robin cried out, "Stop, stop, Little John. It is Robin Hood."
Little John threw down his bow, and ran to him calling out, "Master, master, I might have shot you. What has happened that you come back in this guise?"
Robin soon told all his tale. Then said, "Now gather all our men, for we must fight the Bishop and save this good old woman."
Very soon, Robin, once more dressed in Lincoln green, was marching gaily at the head of his men, through the forest, searching for the Bishop and his company.
The old woman had barely had time to get into Robin's clothes before the Bishop arrived. He was pretty sure that Robin would take refuge in her cottage.
"So the Bishop he came to the old woman's house,
And he called with furious mood;,
Come let me soon see, and bring unto me
That traitor Robin Hood."
The old woman said never a word. She let them shout and bang at her door as much as they liked. With Robin's hat pulled well down over her face, she stood in a dark corner and waited. After a great deal of noise, they burst the door open and rushed in. They shouted with triumph when they saw the figure in green standing in the corner.
The old woman had armed herself with a good stout stick. With this she laid about her making a great show of fighting. She did indeed give one or two of the Bishop's men hearty smacks on the head. The noise was tremendous. Outside she could hear the Bishop shouting, "Gently, my men, gently. Take him alive, take him alive."
After a little she pretended to give in, and allowed several of the men to tie her hands behind her back. They led her out to the Bishop. So glad was he to see Robin Hood, as he thought, captured and bound, that he rocked in his saddle for very joy.
"Aha, my man," he cried, "we have you at last. Say farewell to your Green Wood. You will never see it again."
The old woman held her head down, though her hat was pulled well over her face, for fear the Bishop would find out that she was not Robin Hood at all.
But the Bishop was so old and blind that he could not tell that it was not Robin. Besides, he was so sure that he had got him that he hardly even looked at the old woman's face. He thought Robin was hanging his head in shame.
"Ho there," he cried, "honour to the prince of thieves. The finest horse in the company for the King of Sherwood Forest."
So a milk-white horse, the finest in all the company, was brought forward. Two men helped the old woman on to it. They tied her on firmly in case she should try to jump off and run away.
"He is ugly enough anyhow," said one man, looking at the old woman.
"As ugly as sin," said another.
"Ah, my children," said the Bishop, who heard them, "you see what sin does. This man leads a wicked life, and it has left its mark on his face."
When the old woman heard that, she shook with anger. It was so untrue.
The Bishop thought that Robin was trembling in fear. "Ah, you may well tremble my man," he said. "The punishment of all your wicked deeds is near." But the old woman never answered a word.
"Sound the trumpet," said the Bishop turning to the captain of his soldiers. "Call in all our scattered men, for I would be at St. Mary's Abbey by noon."
So the trumpet was sounded, and all the Bishop's servants and soldiers gathered together again. Once more they set off, the old woman on her beautiful white horse riding beside the Bishop on his dapple grey pony.
As they rode along the Bishop laughed and sang for joy. He was so glad that he had taken Robin Hood prisoner. His laughter did not last long, however.
"For as they were riding the forest along,
The Bishop chanced to see
A hundred brave bowmen stout and strong
Stand under the Green Wood Tree."
"Who are these," said the Bishop, "and what man is that who leads them?"
Then for the first time the old woman spoke. "Faith," said she, "I think it is a man called Robin Hood."
The Bishop made his pony stop, and laying a hand on the old woman's reins turned to her with a pale face. "Who are you, then?" he asked.
"Only an old woman, my Lord Bishop. Only an old woman and not Robin Hood at all," she replied.
"Then woe is me, the Bishop said,
That ever I saw this day!
He turned him about, but Robin so stout,
Called to him and bid him to stay."
"No, my Lord Bishop," said Robin, taking his hat off and bowing politely, "no, my lord, you cannot go yet. You owe us something for all the trouble you have given us."
"No, my Lord Bishop," said Robin, "you cannot go yet"
Then he went to the old woman, unbound her hands, and lifted her gently to the ground. "I thank you, dame," he said, "for your kindness to me this day. Robin Hood will never forget it. Now you must have more comfortable clothes. If you follow Much the Miller's son he will take you to Maid Marian. She is waiting for you."
"Thank you kindly," said the old woman, as she went away laughing, "but I think I'll take to wearing Lincoln green myself."
The Bishop's men did not attempt to fight. They saw it was useless. Robin had gathered so many of his brave men that they could easily have killed all the Bishop's men if they had tried. So they laid down their swords and spears and waited quietly to see what would happen next.
"Then Robin took hold of the Bishop's horse,
And tied him fast to a tree;
Then smiled Little John his master upon,
For joy of his company."
Robin then helped the Bishop to get off his horse, and gave him a comfortable seat on the root of a tree. Then seating himself opposite he said, "Now, my Lord Bishop, how much money have you with you?"
"The money which I have with me is not mine," replied the Bishop.
"Very true it is not yours," agreed Robin smiling.
"It belongs to the monastery of St. Mary," said the Bishop.
"Pardon me, it belongs to the poor people from whom you have stolen it," said Robin sternly, "to whom it is now going to be returned. Little John, bring the Bishop's money bags."
Little John brought the Bishop's money bags and counted out five hundred pounds upon the ground.
"Now let him go," said Robin.
"Master," said Little John, "it is a long time since I have heard High Mass sung, or indeed since we have had any service except what Friar Tuck gives us. May the Bishop not sing Mass before he goes?"
"You are right," said Robin, gravely rising and laying his hand on Little John's arm. "I have to-day much to be thankful for. The Bishop shall sing Mass before he goes."
So in the dim wood, beneath the tall trees which formed an archway overhead, as if they had been in a great cathedral, Robin and his men, and the Bishop and his men, friend and foe, knelt together side by side while the Bishop sang Mass. The birds joined in the singing and the trees whispered the amens.
Then Robin called for the Bishop's pony. He set him on it and led him and his men back to the broad path through the woods.
There he took leave of them. "Go," he said to the Bishop, "thank God for all His mercies to you this day, and in your prayers forget not Robin Hood."