Maid Marian, by Thomas Love Peacock

Chapter VII

Now, master sheriff, what’s your will with me?

Henry IV.

Matilda had carried her point with the baron of ranging at liberty whithersoever she would, under her positive promise to return home; she was a sort of prisoner on parole: she had obtained this indulgence by means of an obsolete habit of always telling the truth and keeping her word, which our enlightened age has discarded with other barbarisms, but which had the effect of giving her father so much confidence in her, that he could not help considering her word a better security than locks and bars.

The baron had been one of the last to hear of the rumours of the new outlaws of Sherwood, as Matilda had taken all possible precautions to keep those rumours from his knowledge, fearing that they might cause the interruption of her greenwood liberty; and it was only during her absence at Gamwell feast, that the butler, being thrown off his guard by liquor, forgot her injunctions, and regaled the baron with a long story of the right merry adventure of Robin Hood and the abbot of Doubleflask.

The baron was one morning, as usual, cutting his way valorously through a rampart of cold provision, when his ears were suddenly assailed by a tremendous alarum, and sallying forth, and looking from his castle wall, he perceived a large party of armed men on the other side of the moat, who were calling on the warder in the king’s name to lower the drawbridge and raise the portcullis, which had both been secured by Matilda’s order. The baron walked along the battlement till he came opposite to these unexpected visitors, who, as soon as they saw him, called out, “Lower the drawbridge, in the king’s name.”

“For what, in the devil’s name?” said the baron.

“The sheriff of Nottingham,” said one, “lies in bed grievously bruised, and many of his men are wounded, and several of them slain; and Sir Ralph Montfaucon, knight, is sore wounded in the arm; and we are charged to apprehend William Gamwell the younger, of Gamwell Hall, and father Michael of Rubygill Abbey, and Matilda Fitzwater of Arlingford Castle, as agents and accomplices in the said breach of the king’s peace.”

“Breach of the king’s fiddlestick!” answered the baron. “What do you mean by coming here with your cock and bull, stories of my daughter grievously bruising the sheriff of Nottingham? You are a set of vagabond rascals in disguise; and I hear, by the bye, there is a gang of thieves that has just set up business in Sherwood Forest: a pretty presence, indeed, to get into my castle with force and arms, and make a famine in my buttery, and a drought in my cellar, and a void in my strong box, and a vacuum in my silver scullery.”

“Lord Fitzwater,” cried one, “take heed how you resist lawful authority: we will prove ourselves ——”

“You will prove yourselves arrant knaves, I doubt not,” answered the baron; “but, villains, you shall be more grievously bruised by me than ever was the sheriff by my daughter (a pretty tale truly!), if you do not forthwith avoid my territory.”

By this time the baron’s men had flocked to the battlements, with long-bows and cross-bows, slings and stones, and Matilda with her bow and quiver at their head. The assailants, finding the castle so well defended, deemed it expedient to withdraw till they could return in greater force, and rode off to Rubygill Abbey, where they made known their errand to the father abbot, who, having satisfied himself of their legitimacy, and conned over the allegations, said that doubtless brother Michael had heinously offended; but it was not for the civil law to take cognizance of the misdoings of a holy friar; that he would summon a chapter of monks, and pass on the offender a sentence proportionate to his offence. The ministers of civil justice said that would not do. The abbot said it would do and should; and bade them not provoke the meekness of his catholic charity to lay them under the curse of Rome. This threat had its effect, and the party rode off to Gamwell–Hall, where they found the Gamwells and their men just sitting down to dinner, which they saved them the trouble of eating by consuming it in the king’s name themselves, having first seized and bound young Gamwell; all which they accomplished by dint of superior numbers, in despite of a most vigorous stand made by the Gamwellites in defence of their young master and their provisions.

The baron, meanwhile, after the ministers of justice had departed, interrogated Matilda concerning the alleged fact of the grievous bruising of the sheriff of Nottingham. Matilda told him the whole history of Gamwell feast, and of their battle on the bridge, which had its origin in a design of the sheriff of Nottingham to take one of the foresters into custody.

“Ay! ay!” said the baron, “and I guess who that forester was; but truly this friar is a desperate fellow. I did not think there could have been so much valour under a grey frock. And so you wounded the knight in the arm. You are a wild girl, Mawd — a chip of the old block, Mawd. A wild girl, and a wild friar, and three or four foresters, wild lads all, to keep a bridge against a tame knight, and a tame sheriff, and fifty tame varlets; by this light, the like was never heard! But do you know, Mawd, you must not go about so any more, sweet Mawd: you must stay at home, you must ensconce; for there is your tame sheriff on the one hand, that will take you perforce; and there is your wild forester on the other hand, that will take you without any force at all, Mawd: your wild forester, Robin, cousin Robin, Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, that beats and binds bishops, spreads nets for archbishops, and hunts a fat abbot as if he were a buck: excellent game, no doubt, but you must hunt no more in such company. I see it now: truly I might have guessed before that the bold outlaw Robin, the most courteous Robin, the new thief of Sherwood Forest, was your lover, the earl that has been: I might have guessed it before, and what led you so much to the woods; but you hunt no more in such company. No more May games and Gamwell feasts. My lands and castle would be the forfeit of a few more such pranks; and I think they are as well in my hands as the king’s, quite as well.”

“You know, father,” said Matilda, “the condition of keeping me at home: I get out if I can, and not on parole.”

“Ay! ay!” said the baron, “if you can; very true: watch and ward, Mawd, watch and ward is my word: if you can, is yours. The mark is set, and so start fair.”

The baron would have gone on in this way for an hour; but the friar made his appearance with a long oak staff in his hand, singing —

Drink and sing, and eat and laugh,

And so go forth to battle:

For the top of a skull and the end of a staff

Do make a ghostly rattle.

“Ho! ho! friar!” said the baron —“singing friar, laughing friar, roaring friar, fighting friar, hacking friar, thwacking friar; cracking, cracking, cracking friar; joke-cracking, bottle-cracking, skull-cracking friar!”

“And ho! ho!” said the friar — “bold baron, old baron, sturdy baron, wordy baron, long baron, strong baron, mighty baron, flighty baron, mazed baron, crazed baron, hacked baron, thwacked baron; cracked, cracked, cracked baron; bone-cracked, sconce-cracked, brain-cracked baron!”

“What do you mean,” said the baron, “bully friar, by calling me hacked and thwacked?”

“Were you not in the wars?” said the friar, “where he who escapes untracked does more credit to his heels than his arms. I pay tribute to your valour in calling you hacked and thwacked.”

“I never was thwacked in my life,” said the baron; “I stood my ground manfully, and covered my body with my sword. If I had had the luck to meet with a fighting friar indeed, I might have been thwacked, and soundly too; but I hold myself a match for any two laymen; it takes nine fighting laymen to make a fighting friar.”

“Whence come you now, holy father?” asked Matilda.

“From Rubygill Abbey,” said the friar, “whither I never return:

For I must seek some hermit cell, Where I alone my beads may tell, And on the wight who that way fares Levy a toll for my ghostly pray’rs,

Levy a toll, levy a toll,

Levy a toll for my ghostly pray’rs.”

“What is the matter then, father?” said Matilda.

“This is the matter,” said the friar: “my holy brethren have held a chapter on me, and sentenced me to seven years’ privation of wine. I therefore deemed it fitting to take my departure, which they would fain have prohibited. I was enforced to clear the way with my staff. I have grievously beaten my dearly beloved brethren: I grieve thereat; but they enforced me thereto. I have beaten them much; I mowed them down to the right and to the left, and left them like an ill-reaped field of wheat, ear and straw pointing all ways, scattered in singleness and jumbled in masses; and so bade them farewell, saying, Peace be with you. But I must not tarry, lest danger be in my rear: therefore, farewell, sweet Matilda; and farewell, noble baron; and farewell, sweet Matilda again, the alpha and omega of father Michael, the first and the last.”

“Farewell, father,” said the baron, a little softened; “and God send you be never assailed by more than fifty men at a time.”

“Amen,” said the friar, “to that good wish.”

“And we shall meet again, father, I trust,” said Matilda.

“When the storm is blown over,” said the baron.

“Doubt it not,” said the friar, “though flooded Trent were between us, and fifty devils guarded the bridge.”

He kissed Matilda’s forehead, and walked away without a song.

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