The Sheriff of Nottingham
(Part 1 of the chapter)
To sit beside a river on a golden afternoon listening to its whispered melody, while the air about one is fragrant with summer, and heavy with the drone of unseen wings!--What ordinary mortal could wish for more?
And yet, though conscious of this fair world about me, I was still uncontent, for my world was incomplete--nay, lacked its most essential charm, and I sat with my ears on the stretch, waiting for Lisbeth's chance footstep on the path and the soft whisper of her skirts.
The French are indeed a great people, for among many other things they alone have caught that magic sound a women's garments make as she walks, and given it to the world in the one word "frou-frou."
O wondrous word! O word sublime! How full art thou of delicate suggestion! Truly, there can be no sweeter sound to ears masculine upon a golden summer afternoon--or any other time, for that matter--than the soft "frou-frou" that tells him She is coming.
At this point my thoughts were interrupted by something which hurtled through the air and splashed into the water at my feet. Glancing at this object, I recognised the loud-toned cricket cap affected by the Imp, and reaching for it, I fished it out on the end of my rod. It was a hideous thing of red, white, blue and green--a really horrible affair, and therefore much prized by its owner, as I knew.
Behind me the bank rose some four or five feet, crowned with willows and underbrush, from the other side of which there now came a prodigious rustling and panting. Rising to my feet, therefore, I parted the leaves with extreme care, and beheld the Imp himself.
He was armed to the teeth--that is to say, a wooden sword swung at his thigh, a tin bugle depended from his belt, and he carried a bow and arrow. Opposite him was another boy, particularly ragged at knee and elbow, who stood with hands thrust into his pockets and grinned.
"Base caitiff, hold!" cried the Imp, fitting an arrow to the string; "stand an' deliver. Give me my cap, thou varlet, thou!" The boy's grin expanded.
"Give me my cap, base slave, or I'll shoot you--by my troth!" As he spoke the Imp aimed his arrow, whereupon the boy ducked promptly.
"I ain't got yer cap," he grinned from the shelter of his arm. "It's been an' gone an' throwed itself into the river." The Imp let fly his arrow, which was answered by a yell from the Base Varlet.
"Yah!" he cried derisively as the Imp drew his sword with a melodramatic flourish. "Yah! put down that stick an' I'll fight yer."
The Imp indignantly repudiated his trusty weapon being called "a stick"--"an I don't think," he went on, "that Robin Hood ever fought without his sword. Let's see what the book says," and he drew a very
crumpled paper covered volume from his pocket, which he consulted with knitted brows, while the Base Varlet watched him, open-mouthed.
"Oh, yes," nodded the Imp; "it's all right. Listen to this!" and he read as follows in a stern, deep voice:
"'Then Robin tossed aside his trusty blade, an' laying bare his knotted arm, approached the dastardly ruffian with many a merry quip and jest, prepared for the fierce death-grip.'"
Hereupon the Imp laid aside his book and and weapons and proceeded to roll up his sleeve, having done which to his satisfaction, he faced round upon the Base Varlet.
"Have at ye, dastardly ruffian!" he cried, and therewith ensued a battle, fierce and fell.
If his antagonist had it in height, the Imp made up for it in weight--he is a particularly solid Imp--and this the struggle lasted for some five minutes without any appreciable advantage to either, when, in eluding one the enemy's desperate rushes, the Imp stumbled, lost his balance, and next moment I had caught him in my arms. For a space "the enemy" remained panting on the bank above, and then with another yell turned and darted off among the bushes.
"Hallo, Imp!" I said.
"Hallo, Uncle Dick!" he returned.
"Hurt?" I inquired.
"Wounded a bit in the nose, you know," he answered, mopping that organ with his handkerchief; "but did you see me punch 'yon varlet' in the eye?"
"Did you Imp?"
"I think so, Uncle Dick; only I do wish I'd made him surrender. The book says that Robin Hood always made his enemies 'surrender an' beg their life on trembling knee!' Oh, it must be fine to see your enemies on their knee!"
"Especially if they tremble," I added.
"Do you s'pose that boy--I mean 'yon base varlet' would have surrendered?"
"Not a doubt of it --if he hadn't happened to push you over the bank first."
"Oh!" murmured the Imp rather dubiously.
"By the way," I said as I filled my pipe, "where is your Auntie Lisbeth?"
"Well, I chased her up the big apple-tree with my bow an' arrow."
"Of course," I nodded. "Very right and proper!"
"You see," he explained, "I wanted her to be a wild elephant an' she wouldn't."
"Extremely disobliging of her!"
"Yes, wasn't it? So when she was right up I took away the ladder an' hid it."
"Highly strategic, my Imp."
"So then I turned into Robin Hood. I hung my cap on a bush to shoot at, you know, an' 'the Base Varlet' came up an' ran off with it."
"And there it is," I said, pointing to where it lay. The Imp received it with profuse thanks, and having wrung out the water, clapped it upon his curls and sat down beside me.
"I found another man who wants to be my uncle," he began.
"Yes; but I don't want any more, you know."
"Of course not. One like me suffices for your every-day needs--eh, my Imp?"
The Imp nodded. "It was yesterday," he continued. "He came to see Auntie Lisbeth, an' I found them in the summer-house in the orchard. An' I heard him say, 'Miss Elizabeth, you're prettier than ever!'"
"Did he though, confound him!"
"Yes, an' then Auntie Lisbeth looked silly, an' then he saw me behind a tree an' he looked silly, too. Then he said, 'Come here, little man!' An' I went, you know, though I do hate to be called 'little man.' Then he said he'd give me a shilling if I'd call him Uncle Frank."
"And what did you answer?"
"'Fraid I'm awfull' wicked," sighed the Imp, shaking his head, "'cause I told him a great big lie."
"Did you, Imp?"
"Yes. I said I didn't want his shilling, an' I do, you know, most awfully, to buy a spring pistol with."
"Oh, well, we'll see what can be done about the spring pistol," I answered. "And so you don't like him, eh?"
"Should think not," returned the Imp promptly. "He's always so--so awfull' clean, an' wears a little moustache with teeny sharp points on it."
"Any one who does that deserves all he gets," I said, shaking my head. "And what is his name?"
"The Honourable Frank Selwyn, an' he lives at Selwyn Park--the next house to ours."
"Oho!" I exclaimed, and whistled.
"Uncle Dick" said the Imp, breaking in upon a somewhat unpleasant train of thought conjured up by this intelligence, "will you come an' be 'Little John under the merry greenwood tree'? Do."
"Why, what do you know about 'the merry greenwood, Imp?"
"Oh, lots!" he answered, hastily pulling out the tattered book. "This is all about Robin Hood an' Little- John. Ben, the gardener's boy, lent it to me. Robin Hood was a fine chap, an' so was Little-John, an' they used to set ambushes an' capture the Sheriff of Nottingham an' all sorts of caddish barons an' tie them to trees."
"My Imp," I said, shaking my head, "the times are sadly changed. One cannot tie barons--caddish or otherwise--to trees in these degenerate days."
"No, I s'pose not," sighed the Imp dolefully; "but I do wish you would be Little-John, Uncle Dick."
"Oh, certainly, Imp, if it will make you any happier; though of a truth, bold Robin," I continued after the manner of the story books, "Little-John hath a mind to bide awhile and commune with himself here; yet give but one blast upon thy bugle horn and thou shalt find my arm and quarterstaff ready and willing enough, I'll warrant you!"
"That sounds awfull' fine, Uncle Dick, only--you haven't got a quarter-staff, you know."
"Yea, 'tis here!" I answered, and detached the lower joint of my fishing rod. The Imp rose, and folding his arms, surveyed me as Robin Hood himself might have done--that is to say, with an 'eye of fire.'
"So be it, my faithful Little-John," qouth he; "meet me at the Blasted Oak at midnight. An' if I shout for help--I mean blow my bugle--you'll come an' rescue me, won't you, Uncle Dick?"