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Chapter XX: How Will Stutely Was Rescued
Forth of the greenwood are they gone, Yea, all courageously, Resolving to bring Stutely home, Or every man to die.
The next day dawned bright and sunny. The whole face of nature seemed gay as if in despite of the tragedy which was soon to take place in the walls of Nottingham town. The gates were not opened upon this day, for the Sheriff was determined to carry through the hanging of Will Stutely undisturbed. No man, therefore, was to be allowed entrance from without, all that morning and until after the fatal hour of noon, when Will's soul was to be launched into eternity.
Early in the day Robin had drawn his men to a point, as near as he dared, in the wood where he could watch the road leading to the East gate. He himself was clad in a bright scarlet dress, while his men, a goodly array, wore their suits of sober Lincoln green. They were armed with broadswords, and 'each man carried his bow and a full quiver of new arrows, straightened and sharpened cunningly by Middle, the tinker. Over their greenwood dress, each man had thrown a rough mantle, making him look not unlike a friar.
"I hold it good, comrades," then said Robin Hood, "to tarry here in hiding for a season while we sent some one forth to obtain tidings. For, in sooth, 'twill work no good to march upon the gates if they be closed."
"Look, master," quoth one of the widow's sons. "There comes a palmer along the road from the town. Belike he can tell us how the land ties, and if Stutely be really in jeopardy. Shall I go out and engage him in speech?"
"Go," answered Robin.
So Stout Will went out from the band while the others hid themselves and waited. When he had come close to the palmer, who seemed a slight, youngish man, he doffed his hat full courteously and said,
"I crave your pardon, holy man, but can you tell me tidings of Nottingham town? Do they intend to put an outlaw to death this day?"
"Yea," answered the palmer sadly. "'Tis true enough, sorry be the day. I have passed the very spot where the gallows-tree is going up. 'Tis out upon the roadway near the Sheriff's castle. One, Will Stutely, is to be hung thereon at noon, and I could not bear the sight, so came away."
The palmer spoke in a muffled voice; and as his hood was pulled well over his head, Stout Will could not discern what manner of man he was. Over his shoulder he carried a long staff, with the fashion of a little cross at one end; and he had sandaled feet like any monk. Stout Will notice idly that the feet were very small and white, but gave no second thought to the matter.
"Who will shrive the poor wretch, if you have come away from him?" he asked reproachfully.
The question seemed to put a new idea into the palmer's head. He turned so quickly that he almost dropped his hood.
"Do you think that I should undertake this holy office?"
"By Saint Peter and the Blessed Virgin, I do indeed! Else, who will do it? The Bishop and all his whining clerks may be there, but not one would say a prayer for his soul."
"But I am only a poor palmer," the other began hesitatingly.
"Nathless, your prayers are as good as any and better than some," replied Will.
"Right gladly would I go," then said the palmer; "but I fear me I cannot get into the city. You may know that the gates are fast locked, for this morning, to all who would come in, although they let any pass out who will."
"Come with me," said Stout Will, "and my master will see that you pass through the gates."
So the palmer pulled his cloak still closer about him and was brought before Robin Hood, to whom he told all he knew of the situation. He ended with,
"If I may make so bold, I would not try to enter the city from this gate, as 'tis closely guarded since yesterday. But on the far side, no attack is looked for."
"My thanks, gentle palmer," quoth Robin, "your suggestion is good, and we will deploy to the gate upon the far side."
So the men marched silently but quickly until they were near to the western gate. Then Arthur-a-Bland asked leave to go ahead as a scout, and quietly made his way to a point under the tower by the gate. The moat was dry on this side, as these were times of peace, and Arthur was further favored by a stout ivy vine which grew out from an upper window.
Swinging himself up boldly by means of this friendly vine, he crept through the window and in a moment more had sprung upon the warder from behind and gripped him hard about the throat. The warder had no chance to utter the slightest sound, and soon lay bound and gagged upon the floor; while Arthur-a-Bland slipped himself into his uniform and got hold of his keys.