Maid Marian, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter XVIII

Robin and Richard were two pretty men.

Mother Goose’s Melody.

They proceeded, following their infallible guide, first along a light elastic greensward under the shade of lofty and wide-spreading trees that skirted a sunny opening of the forest, then along labyrinthine paths, which the deer, the outlaw, or the woodman had made, through the close shoots of the young coppices, through the thick undergrowth of the ancient woods, through beds of gigantic fern that filled the narrow glades and waved their green feathery heads above the plume of the knight. Along these sylvan alleys they walked in single file; the friar singing and pioneering in the van, the horse plunging and floundering behind the friar, the lady following “in maiden meditation fancy free,” and the knight bringing up the rear, much marvelling at the strange company into which his stars had thrown him. Their path had expanded sufficiently to allow the knight to take Marian’s hand again, when they arrived in the august presence of Robin Hood and his court.

Robin’s table was spread under a high overarching canopy of living boughs, on the edge of a natural lawn of verdure starred with flowers, through which a swift transparent rivulet ran sparkling in the sun. The board was covered with abundance of choice food and excellent liquor, not without the comeliness of snow-white linen and the splendour of costly plate, which the sheriff of Nottingham had unwillingly contributed to supply, at the same time with an excellent cook, whom Little John’s art had spirited away to the forest with the contents of his master’s silver scullery.

An hundred foresters were here assembled over-ready for their dinner, some seated at the table and some lying in groups under the trees.

Robin bade courteous welcome to the knight, who took his seat between Robin and Marian at the festal board; at which was already placed one strange guest in the person of a portly monk, sitting between Little John and Scarlet, with, his rotund physiognomy elongated into an unnatural oval by the conjoint influence of sorrow and fear: sorrow for the departed contents of his travelling treasury, a good-looking valise which was hanging empty on a bough; and fear for his personal safety, of which all the flasks and pasties before him could not give him assurance. The appearance of the knight, however, cheered him up with a semblance of protection, and gave him just sufficient courage to demolish a cygnet and a rumble-pie, which he diluted with the contents of two flasks of canary sack.

But wine, which sometimes creates and often increases joy, doth also, upon occasion, heighten sorrow: and so it fared now with our portly monk, who had no sooner explained away his portion of provender, than he began to weep and bewail himself bitterly.

“Why dost thou weep, man?” said Robin Hood. “Thou hast done thine embassy justly, and shalt have thy Lady’s grace.”

“Alack! alack!” said the monk: “no embassy had I, luckless sinner, as well thou wottest, but to take to my abbey in safety the treasure whereof thou hast despoiled me.”

“Propound me his case,” said Friar Tuck, “and I will give him ghostly counsel.”

“You well remember,” said Robin Hood, “the sorrowful knight who dined with us here twelve months and a day gone by.”

“Well do I,” said Friar Tuck. “His lands were in jeopardy with a certain abbot, who would allow him no longer day for their redemption. Whereupon you lent to him the four hundred pounds which he needed, and which he was to repay this day, though he had no better security to give than our Lady the Virgin.”

“I never desired better,” said Robin, “for she never yet failed to send me my pay; and here is one of her own flock, this faithful and well-favoured monk of St. Mary’s, hath brought it me duly, principal and interest to a penny, as Little John can testify, who told it forth. To be sure, he denied having it, but that was to prove our faith. We sought and found it.”

“I know nothing of your knight,” said the monk: “and the money was our own, as the Virgin shall bless me.”

“She shall bless thee,” said Friar Tuck, “for a faithful messenger.”

The monk resumed his wailing. Little John brought him his horse. Robin gave him leave to depart. He sprang with singular nimbleness into the saddle, and vanished without saying, God give you good day.

The stranger knight laughed heartily as the monk rode off.

“They say, sir knight,” said Friar Tuck, “they should laugh who win: but thou laughest who art likely to lose.”

“I have won,” said the knight, “a good dinner, some mirth, and some knowledge: and I cannot lose by paying for them.”

“Bravely said,” answered Robin. “Still it becomes thee to pay: for it is not meet that a poor forester should treat a rich knight. How much money hast thou with thee?”

“Troth, I know not,” said the knight. “Sometimes much, sometimes little, sometimes none. But search, and what thou findest, keep: and for the sake of thy kind heart and open hand, be it what it may, I shall wish it were more.”

“Then, since thou sayest so,” said Robin, “not a penny will I touch. Many a false churl comes hither, and disburses against his will: and till there is lack of these, I prey not on true men.”

“Thou art thyself a true man, right well I judge, Robin,” said the stranger knight, “and seemest more like one bred in court than to thy present outlaw life.”

“Our life,” said the friar, “is a craft, an art, and a mystery. How much of it, think you, could be learned at court?”

“Indeed, I cannot say,” said the stranger knight: “but I should apprehend very little.”

“And so should I,” said the friar: “for we should find very little of our bold open practice, but should hear abundance of praise of our principles. To live in seeming fellowship and secret rivalry; to have a hand for all, and a heart for none; to be everybody’s acquaintance, and nobody’s friend; to meditate the ruin of all on whom we smile, and to dread the secret stratagems of all who smile on us; to pilfer honours and despoil fortunes, not by fighting in daylight, but by sapping in darkness: these are arts which the court can teach, but which we, by ‘r Lady, have not learned. But let your court-minstrel tune up his throat to the praise of your court-hero, then come our principles into play: then is our practice extolled not by the same name, for their Richard is a hero, and our Robin is a thief: marry, your hero guts an exchequer, while your thief disembowels a portmanteau, your hero sacks a city, while your thief sacks a cellar: your hero marauds on a larger scale, and that is all the difference, for the principle and the virtue are one: but two of a trade cannot agree: therefore your hero makes laws to get rid of your thief, and gives him an ill name that he may hang him: for might is right, and the strong make laws for the weak, and they that make laws to serve their own turn do also make morals to give colour to their laws.”

“Your comparison, friar,” said the stranger, “fails in this: that your thief fights for profit, and your hero for honour. I have fought under the banners of Richard, and if, as you phrase it, he guts exchequers, and sacks cities, it is not to win treasure for himself, but to furnish forth the means of his greater and more glorious aim.”

“Misconceive me not, sir knight,” said the friar. “We all love and honour King Richard, and here is a deep draught to his health: but I would show you, that we foresters are miscalled by opprobrious names, and that our virtues, though they follow at humble distance, are yet truly akin to those of Coeur-deLion. I say not that Richard is a thief, but I say that Robin is a hero: and for honour, did ever yet man, miscalled thief, win greater honour than Robin? Do not all men grace him with some honourable epithet? The most gentle thief, the most courteous thief, the most bountiful thief, yea, and the most honest thief? Richard is courteous, bountiful, honest, and valiant: but so also is Robin: it is the false word that makes the unjust distinction. They are twin-spirits, and should be friends, but that fortune hath differently cast their lot: but their names shall descend together to the latest days, as the flower of their age and of England: for in the pure principles of freebootery have they excelled all men; and to the principles of freebootery, diversely developed, belong all the qualities to which song and story concede renown.”

“And you may add, friar,” said Marian, “that Robin, no less than Richard, is king in his own dominion; and that if his subjects be fewer, yet are they more uniformly loyal.”

“I would, fair lady,” said the stranger, “that thy latter observation were not so true. But I nothing doubt, Robin, that if Richard could hear your friar, and see you and your lady, as I now do, there is not a man in England whom he would take by the hand more cordially than yourself.”

“Gramercy, sir knight,” said Robin —— But his speech was cut short by Little John calling, “Hark!”

All listened. A distant trampling of horses was heard. The sounds approached rapidly, and at length a group of horsemen glittering in holyday dresses was visible among the trees.

“God’s my life!” said Robin, “what means this? To arms, my merrymen all.”

“No arms, Robin,” said the foremost horseman, riding up and springing from his saddle: “have you forgotten Sir William of the Lee?”

“No, by my fay,” said Robin; “and right welcome again to Sherwood.”

Little John bustled to re-array the disorganised economy of the table, and replace the dilapidations of the provender.

“I come late, Robin,” said Sir William, “but I came by a wrestling, where I found a good yeoman wrongfully beset by a crowd of sturdy varlets, and I staid to do him right.”

“I thank thee for that, in God’s name,” said Robin, “as if thy good service had been to myself.”

“And here,” said the knight, “is thy four hundred pound; and my men have brought thee an hundred bows and as many well-furnished quivers; which I beseech thee to receive and to use as a poor token of my grateful kindness to thee: for me and my wife and children didst thou redeem from beggary.”

“Thy bows and arrows,” said Robin, “will I joyfully receive: but of thy money, not a penny. It is paid already. My Lady, who was thy security, hath sent it me for thee.”

Sir William pressed, but Robin was inflexible.

“It is paid,” said Robin, “as this good knight can testify, who saw my Lady’s messenger depart but now.”

Sir William looked round to the stranger knight, and instantly fell on his knee, saying, “God save King Richard.”

The foresters, friar and all, dropped on their knees together, and repeated in chorus: “God save King Richard.”

“Rise, rise,” said Richard, smiling: “Robin is king here, as his lady hath shown. I have heard much of thee, Robin, both of thy present and thy former state. And this, thy fair forest-queen, is, if tales say true, the lady Matilda Fitzwater.”

Marian signed acknowledgment.

“Your father,” said the king, “has approved his fidelity to me, by the loss of his lands, which the newness of my return, and many public cares, have not yet given me time to restore: but this justice shall be done to him, and to thee also, Robin, if thou wilt leave thy forest-life and resume thy earldom, and be a peer of Coeur-deLion: for braver heart and juster hand I never yet found.”

Robin looked round on his men.

“Your followers,” said the king, “shall have free pardon, and such of them as thou wilt part with shall have maintenance from me; and if ever I confess to priest, it shall be to thy friar.”

“Gramercy to your majesty,” said the friar; “and my inflictions shall be flasks of canary; and if the number be (as in grave cases I may, peradventure, make it) too great for one frail mortality, I will relieve you by vicarious penance, and pour down my own throat the redundancy of the burden.”

Robin and his followers embraced the king’s proposal. A joyful meeting soon followed with the baron and Sir Guy of Gamwell: and Richard himself honoured with his own presence a formal solemnization of the nuptials of our lovers, whom he constantly distinguished with his peculiar regard.

The friar could not say, Farewell to the forest, without something of a heavy heart: and he sang as he turned his back upon its bounds, occasionally reverting his head:

Ye woods, that oft at sultry noon

Have o’er me spread your messy shade:

Ye gushing streams, whose murmured tune

Has in my ear sweet music made,

While, where the dancing pebbles show

Deep in the restless fountain-pool

The gelid water’s upward flow,

My second flask was laid to cool:

Ye pleasant sights of leaf and flower:

Ye pleasant sounds of bird and bee:

Ye sports of deer in sylvan bower:

Ye feasts beneath the greenwood tree:

Ye baskings in the vernal sun:

Ye slumbers in the summer dell:

Ye trophies that this arm has won:

And must ye hear your friar’s farewell?

But the friar’s farewell was not destined to be eternal. He was domiciled as the family confessor of the earl and countess of Huntingdon, who led a discreet and courtly life, and kept up old hospitality in all its munificence, till the death of King Richard and the usurpation of John, by placing their enemy in power, compelled them to return to their greenwood sovereignty; which, it is probable, they would have before done from choice, if their love of sylvan liberty had not been counteracted by their desire to retain the friendship of Coeur-deLion. Their old and tried adherents, the friar among the foremost, flocked again round their forest-banner; and in merry Sherwood they long lived together, the lady still retaining her former name of Maid Marian, though the appellation was then as much a misnomer as that of Little John.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24