Robin Hood lived to be very old. Though his hair was white, his back was straight as that of a young man. He was strong, and brave as an old lion, and his men loved and obeyed him as much as ever.
As the years went on Little John and he loved each other more and more. They were hardly ever apart.
But at last Robin began to feel weak and ill. He said sadly to Little John, "I am not able to shoot any more; my arrows will not fly. I do not know what is the matter with me. Let us go to my cousin the Prioress of Kirkley Abbey. Perhaps she will be able to cure me."
In those days there were hardly any doctors. When people were ill they used to go to clever women like the Prioress of Kirkley Abbey to be made well again.
They had a very curious way of making people well. They made a cut in the sick person's arm and let the blood flow out. After a few minutes the wound was bound up again to stop the blood flowing. This was called "bleeding."
Sometimes people got well after this. At other times they grew worse and died.
Little John and Robin set off together to Kirkley Abbey as fast as they could go. It was a difficult and painful journey. It was only a few days before Christmas. The snow lay thick on the ground, the roads were almost impassable and the cold terrible. They went bravely on, but on the journey Robin became very ill indeed—so ill that he could not sit on his horse. Along the last part of the road, Little John carried him in his arms through the deep snow.
They arrived at Kirkley Abbey on Christmas Eve. The Prioress said she was very pleased to see them. "But, good cousin Robin, what is the matter with you? You look so pale and thin."
"He is very ill," replied Little John in a broken voice. "I feared he would die on the way. I have brought him here so that you may cure him."
Then the Prioress bent over Robin and looked at him carefully. "Yes," she said, "he is very ill. I must bleed him."
If Little John had seen the face of the Prioress, as she bent over his master, he would have taken him away again. There was such a wicked look upon it. But he did not see.
"Come, good Little John," she said, turning to him, "I have a pleasant room on the south side of the abbey looking towards your dear Sherwood. Take up my cousin and carry him there."
So Little John took Robin in his arms and followed the Prioress down the cool, quiet passages, to the little room on the south side of the abbey.
It was very still and peaceful in this little room, which was far away from where the other people in the abbey lived.
Little John wanted to stay beside Robin, but the Prioress said, "No, he must have perfect quietness if he is to get better."
"I will not move nor make a sound," said Little John, "if you will only let me stay."
"No," said the Prioress again, "I must be alone with him if I am to make him better."
"When may I come back, then?" asked Little John.
"In a few hours, perhaps. Perhaps tomorrow morning," replied the Prioress. "I will call you when it is time."
So with a very heavy heart Little John walked away. He went out into the abbey garden. There he sat down under a tree where he could watch the window of Robin's room. Hour after hour he waited patiently in the cold.
Now the Prioress was a bad woman. Robin had always been very kind to her, and she had pretended to love him. Really she hated him, and longed to hurt him.
As long as Robin was well and strong she could do nothing that would hurt him. But now that he had come to her, weak and ill, he was in her power. She meant not to cure him, but to kill him. That was why she sent Little John away. She was a very wicked woman indeed.
As soon as she was alone with him the Prioress made a cut in Robin's arm so that the blood flowed out. She pretended to bind the wound up again, but she put the bandage on so badly that the blood flowed all the same. Then she locked Robin in the room and went away.
Robin was so weak and weary that he soon fell asleep. He slept for many hours. And all the time Little John sat patiently under the tree in the garden—waiting.
When Robin woke he found he was so weak that he could hardly move. He saw the blood was still flowing from his arm and knew that if it was not stopped he would soon die.
He tried to raise himself to the window, but he had not strength. Then he thought of his bugle-horn. With great difficulty he put it to his mouth, and blew three faint blasts.
"Then said Little John on hearing him,
As he sat under the tree,
I fear my master is near dead,
He blows so wearily."
Little John sprang up, and ran as fast as he could to the room in which Robin was lying. The door was locked, so he put his shoulder against it and burst it open. There he found his master almost dead.
Carefully and quickly he bound up the arm. His heart was full of love and grief for his master, and of anger against the wicked Prioress.
"Grant me one favour, master," he said.
"What favour is it you would ask, dear Little John?" replied Robin.
"It is that you will give me leave to gather all our men together, and bring them here to burn this abbey, and kill the wicked Prioress as she has killed you."
"Now nay, now nay, quoth Robin Hood,
That boon I'll not grant thee,
I never hurt a woman in all my life.
Nor man in woman's company:
I never hurt fair maid in all my life,
Nor at my end shall it be."
So Little John promised he would not try to punish the wicked Prioress. But his heart was full of anger against her.
Robin lay still for a short time, and Little John knelt beside him. Then he said, "Little John, I should like to shoot once more. Carry me to the window. Give me my good bow into my hands, and hold me up while I shoot. Where the arrow falls there bury me."
So Little John lifted him up and held him while he shot. The arrow only went a very little way and fell in the garden, not far from where Little John had been sitting.
"It was a good shot, master, a very good shot," said Little John, though he could hardly speak for tears.
"Was it indeed, friend? I could not see," replied Robin, "but you will bury me where it fell."
"Lay me a green sod under my head,
And another at my feet,
And lay my bent bow by my side,
Which was my music sweet;
And make my grave of gravel and green,
Which is most right and meet.
Let me have length and breadth enough,
With a green sod at my head,
That they may say when I am dead,
Here lies bold Robin Hood."
Little John promised to do everything as Robin asked.
"Thank you, dear friend, good-bye," whispered Robin, and he lay still in Little John's arms.
"Thank you, dear friend, good-bye"
Presently he raised himself up, and looking eagerly out of the window, "Was it indeed a good shot?" he said.
Then he fell back again—dead.
Just at that moment the convent bells began to ring for the Christmas Eve service. Through the open window came the sound of the sweet voices of the nuns singing a Christmas carol.
"It is the vigil holy,
The Eve of Noël fair,
When Christ the King comes lowly
Man's miseries to share.
Our sins are clean forgiven,
Our injuries forgot,
And Kneeling pure and shriven,
We wait the birth of God."
But Robin was dead. Never again would he hear the sweet Christmas carol he had loved so well.
Beside him knelt Little John almost broken-hearted.
There was great sorrow all through the land, when it became known that Robin Hood was dead. There was also great anger against the Prioress, but no one tried to punish her, because Robin had asked them to spare her.
Little John called all the Merry Men together for the last time, and they buried their master where his last arrow fell, in the garden of Kirkley Abbey, in Yorkshire.
Over the grave they placed a stone, and carved upon it these
"Here, underneath this stone,
Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon;
No archer ever was so good,
The people called him Robin Hood.
Such outlaws as he and his men
Will England never see again."