"Thou hast been drinking more than enough, friar," said the woodsman, "and, I fear, prating more than enough too."
"Good yeoman," said the knight, coming forward, "be not wroth with my merry host. He did but afford me the hospitality which I would have compelled from him if he had refused it."
"Thou compel!" said the friar; "wait but till have changed this grey gown for a green cassock, and if I make not a quarter-staff ring twelve upon thy pate, I am neither true clerk nor good woodsman."
While he spoke thus, he stript off his gown, and appeared in a close black buckram doublet and drawers, over which he speedily did on a cassock of green, and hose of the same colour. "I pray thee truss my points," said he to Wamba, "and thou shalt have a cup of sack for thy labour."
"Gramercy for thy sack," said Wamba; "but think'st thou it is lawful for me to aid you to transmew thyself from a holy hermit into a sinful forester?"
"Never fear," said the hermit; "I will but confess the sins of my green cloak to my greyfriar's frock, and all shall be well again."
"Amen!" answered the Jester; "a broadcloth penitent should have a sackcloth confessor, and your frock may absolve my motley doublet into the bargain."
So saying, he accommodated the friar with his assistance in tying the endless number of points, as the laces which attached the hose to the doublet were then termed.
While they were thus employed, Locksley led the knight a little apart, and addressed him thus: — "Deny it not, Sir Knight — you are he who decided the victory to the advantage of the English against the strangers on the second day of the tournament at Ashby."
"And what follows if you guess truly, good yeoman?" replied the knight.
"I should in that case hold you," replied the yeoman, "a friend to the weaker party."
"Such is the duty of a true knight at least," replied the Black Champion; "and I would not willingly that there were reason to think otherwise of me."
"But for my purpose," said the yeoman, "thou shouldst be as well a good Englishman as a good knight; for that, which I have to speak of, concerns, indeed, the duty of every honest man, but is more especially that of a true-born native of England."
"You can speak to no one," replied the knight, "to whom England, and the life of every Englishman, can be dearer than to me."
"I would willingly believe so," said the woodsman, "for never had this country such need to be supported by those who love her. Hear me, and I will tell thee of an enterprise, in which, if thou be'st really that which thou seemest, thou mayst take an honourable part. A band of villains, in the disguise of better men than themselves, have made themselves master of the person of a noble Englishman, called Cedric the Saxon, together with his ward, and his friend Athelstane of Coningsburgh, and have transported them to a castle in this forest, called Torquilstone. I ask of thee, as a good knight and a good Englishman, wilt thou aid in their rescue?"
"I am bound by my vow to do so," replied the knight; "but I would willingly know who you are, who request my assistance in their behalf?"
"I am," said the forester, "a nameless man; but I am the friend of my country, and of my country's friends — With this account of me you must for the present remain satisfied, the more especially since you yourself desire to continue unknown. Believe, however, that my word, when pledged, is as inviolate as if I wore golden spurs."
"I willingly believe it," said the knight; "I have been accustomed to study men's countenances, and I can read in thine honesty and resolution. I will, therefore, ask thee no further questions, but aid thee in setting at freedom these oppressed captives; which done, I trust we shall part better acquainted, and well satisfied with each other."
"So," said Wamba to Gurth, — for the friar being now fully equipped, the Jester, having approached to the other side of the hut, had heard the conclusion of the conversation, — "So we have got a new ally? — l trust the valour of the knight will be truer metal than the religion of the hermit, or the honesty of the yeoman; for this Locksley looks like a born deer-stealer, and the priest like a lusty hypocrite."
"Hold thy peace, Wamba," said Gurth; "it may all be as thou dost guess; but were the horned devil to rise and proffer me his assistance to set at liberty Cedric and the Lady Rowena, I fear I should hardly have religion enough to refuse the foul fiend's offer, and bid him get behind me."
The friar was now completely accoutred as a yeoman, with sword and buckler, bow, and quiver, and a strong partisan over his shoulder. He left his cell at the head of the party, and, having carefully locked the door, deposited the key under the threshold.
"Art thou in condition to do good service, friar," said Locksley, "or does the brown bowl still run in thy head?"
"Not more than a drought of St Dunstan's fountain will allay," answered the priest; "something there is of a whizzing in my brain, and of instability in my legs, but you shall presently see both pass away."
So saying, he stepped to the stone basin, in which the waters of the fountain as they fell formed bubbles which danced in the white moonlight, and took so long a drought as if he had meant to exhaust the spring.
"When didst thou drink as deep a drought of water before, Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst?" said the Black Knight.
"Never since my wine-butt leaked, and let out its liquor by an illegal vent," replied the friar, "and so left me nothing to drink but my patron's bounty here."
Then plunging his hands and head into the fountain, he washed from them all marks of the midnight revel.
Thus refreshed and sobered, the jolly priest twirled his heavy partisan round his head with three fingers, as if he had been balancing a reed, exclaiming at the same time, "Where be those false ravishers, who carry off wenches against their will? May the foul fiend fly off with me, if I am not man enough for a dozen of them."
"Swearest thou, Holy Clerk?" said the Black Knight.
"Clerk me no Clerks," replied the transformed priest; "by Saint George and the Dragon, I am no longer a shaveling than while my frock is on my back — When I am cased in my green cassock, I will drink, swear, and woo a lass, with any blithe forester in the West Riding."
"Come on, Jack Priest," said Locksley, "and be silent; thou art as noisy as a whole convent on a holy eve, when the Father Abbot has gone to bed. — Come on you, too, my masters, tarry not to talk of it — I say, come on, we must collect all our forces, and few enough we shall have, if we are to storm the Castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf."
"What! is it Front-de-Boeuf," said the Black Knight, "who has stopt on the king's highway the king's liege subjects? — Is he turned thief and oppressor?"
"Oppressor he ever was," said Locksley.
"And for thief," said the priest, "I doubt if ever he were even half so honest a man as many a thief of my acquaintance."
"Move on, priest, and be silent," said the yeoman; "it were better you led the way to the place of rendezvous, than say what should be left unsaid, both in decency and prudence."