At the French Court
A WAY from the tall narrow gateway of Rollo's Tower, with the cluster of friendly, sorrowful faces looking forth from it, away from the booth-like shops of Rouen, and the stout burghers shouting with all the power of their lungs, "Long live Duke Richard! Long live King Louis! Death to the Fleming!"—away from the broad Seine—away from home and friends, rode the young Duke of Normandy, by the side of the palfrey of the King of France.
The King took much notice of him, kept him by his side, talked to him, admired the beautiful cattle grazing in security in the green pastures, and, as he looked at the rich dark brown earth of the fields, the Castles towering above the woods, the Convents looking like great farms, the many villages round the rude Churches, and the numerous population who came out to gaze at the party, and repeat the cry of "Long live the King! Blessings on the little Duke!" he told Richard, again and again, that his was the most goodly duchy in France and Germany to boot.
When they crossed the Epte, the King would have Richard in the same boat with him, and sitting close to Louis, and talking eagerly about falcons and hounds, the little Duke passed the boundary of his own dukedom.
The country beyond was not like Normandy. First they came to a great forest, which seemed to have no path through it. The King ordered that one of the men, who had rowed them across, should be made to serve as guide, and two of the men-at-arms took him between them, and forced him to lead the way, while others, with their swords and battle-axes, cut down and cleared away the tangled branches and briars that nearly choked the path. All the time, every one was sharply on the look-out for robbers, and the weapons were all held ready for use at a moment's notice. On getting beyond the forest a Castle rose before them, and, though it was not yet late in the day, they resolved to rest there, as a marsh lay not far before them, which it would not have been safe to traverse in the evening twilight.
The Baron of the Castle received them with great respect to the King, but without paying much attention to the Duke of Normandy, and Richard did not find the second place left for him at the board. He coloured violently, and looked first at the King, and then at Osmond, but Osmond held up his finger in warning; he remembered how he had lost his temper before, and what had come of it, and resolved to try to bear it better; and just then the Baron's daughter, a gentle-looking maiden of fifteen or sixteen, came and spoke to him, and entertained him so well, that he did not think much more of his offended dignity.—When they set off on their journey again, the Baron and several of his followers came with them to show the only safe way across the morass, and a very slippery, treacherous, quaking road it was, where the horses' feet left pools of water wherever they trod. The King and the Baron rode together, and the other French Nobles closed round them; Richard was left quite in the background, and though the French men-at-arms took care not to lose sight of him, no one offered him any assistance, excepting Osmond, who, giving his own horse to Sybald, one of the two Norman grooms who accompanied him, led Richard's horse by the bridle along the whole distance of the marshy path, a business that could scarcely have been pleasant, as Osmond wore his heavy hauberk, and his pointed, iron-guarded boots sunk deep at every step into the bog. He spoke little, but seemed to be taking good heed of every stump of willow or stepping-stone that might serve as a note of remembrance of the path.
At the other end of the morass began a long tract of dreary-looking, heathy waste, without a sign of life. The Baron took leave of the King, only sending three men-at-arms, to show him the way to a monastery, which was to be the next halting-place. He sent three, because it was not safe for one, even fully armed, to ride alone, for fear of the attacks of the followers of a certain marauding Baron, who was at deadly feud with him, and made all that border a most perilous region. Richard might well observe that he did not like the Vexin half as well as Normandy, and that the people ought to learn Fru Astrida's story of the golden bracelets, which, in his grandfather's time, had hung untouched for a year, in a tree in a forest.
It was pretty much the same through the whole journey, waste lands, marshes, and forests alternated. The Castles stood on high mounds frowning on the country round, and villages were clustered round them, where the people either fled away, driving off their cattle with them at the first sight of an armed band, or else, if they remained, proved to be thin, wretched-looking creatures, with wasted limbs, aguish faces, and often iron collars round their necks. Wherever there was anything of more prosperous appearance, such as a few cornfields, vineyards on the slopes of the hills, fat cattle, and peasantry looking healthy and secure, there was sure to be seen a range of long low stone buildings, surmounted with crosses, with a short square Church tower rising in the midst, and interspersed with gnarled hoary old apple-trees, or with gardens of pot-herbs spreading before them to the meadows. If, instead of two or three men- at-arms from a Castle, or of some trembling serf pressed into the service, and beaten, threatened, and watched to prevent treachery, the King asked for a guide at a Convent, some lay brother would take his staff; or else mount an ass, and proceed in perfect confidence and security as to his return homewards, sure that his poverty and his sacred character would alike protect him from any outrage from the most lawless marauder of the neighbourhood.
Thus they travelled until they reached the royal Castle of Laon, where the Fleur-de-Lys standard on the battlements announced the presence of Gerberge, Queen of France, and her two sons. The King rode first into the court with his Nobles, and before Richard could follow him through the narrow arched gateway, he had dismounted, entered the Castle, and was out of sight. Osmond held the Duke's stirrup, and followed him up the steps which led to the Castle Hall. It was full of people, but no one made way, and Richard, holding his Squire's hand, looked up in his face, inquiring and bewildered.
"Sir Seneschal," said Osmond, seeing a broad portly old man, with grey hair and a golden chain, "this is the Duke of Normandy—I pray you conduct him to the King's presence."
Richard had no longer any cause to complain of neglect, for the Seneschal instantly made him a very low bow, and calling "Place— place for the high and mighty Prince, my Lord Duke of Normandy!" ushered him up to the dais or raised part of the floor, where the King and Queen stood together talking. The Queen looked round, as Richard was announced, and he saw her face, which was sallow, and with a sharp sour expression that did not please him, and he backed and looked reluctant, while Osmond, with a warning hand pressed on his shoulder, was trying to remind him that he ought to go forward, kneel on one knee, and kiss her hand.
"There he is," said the King.
"One thing secure!" said the Queen; "but what makes that northern giant keep close to his heels?"
Louis answered something in a low voice, and, in the meantime, Osmond tried in a whisper to induce his young Lord to go forward and perform his obeisance.
"I tell you I will not," said Richard. "She looks cross, and I do not like her."
Luckily he spoke his own language; but his look and air expressed a good deal of what he said, and Gerberge looked all the more unattractive.
"A thorough little Norwegian bear," said the King; "fierce and unruly as the rest. Come, and perform your courtesy—do you forget where you are?" he added, sternly.
Richard bowed, partly because Osmond forced down his shoulder; but he thought of old Rollo and Charles the Simple, and his proud heart resolved that he would never kiss the hand of that sour-looking Queen. It was a determination made in pride and defiance, and he suffered for it afterwards; but no more passed now, for the Queen only saw in his behaviour that of an unmannerly young Northman: and though she disliked and despised him, she did not care enough about his courtesy to insist on its being paid. She sat down, and so did the King, and they went on talking; the King probably telling her his adventures at Rouen, while Richard stood on the step of the dais, swelling with sullen pride.
Nearly a quarter of an hour had passed in this manner when the servants came to set the table for supper, and Richard, in spite of his indignant looks, was forced to stand aside. He wondered that all this time he had not seen the two Princes, thinking how strange he should have thought it, to let his own dear father be in the house so long without coming to welcome him. At last, just as the supper had been served up, a side door opened, and the Seneschal called, "Place for the high and mighty Princes, my Lord Lothaire and my Lord Carloman!" and in walked two boys, one about the same age as Richard, the other rather less than a year younger. They were both thin, pale, sharp-featured children, and Richard drew himself up to his full height, with great satisfaction at being so much taller than Lothaire.
They came up ceremoniously to their father and kissed his hand, while he kissed their foreheads, and then said to them, "There is a new play-fellow for you."
"Is that the little Northman?" said Carloman, turning to stare at Richard with a look of curiosity, while Richard in his turn felt considerably affronted that a boy so much less than himself should call him little.
"Yes," said the Queen; "your father has brought him home with him."
Carloman stepped forward, shyly holding out his hand to the stranger, but his brother pushed him rudely aside. "I am the eldest; it is my business to be first. So, young Northman, you are come here for us to play with."
Richard was too much amazed at being spoken to in this imperious way to make any answer. He was completely taken by surprise, and only opened his great blue eyes to their utmost extent.
"Ha! why don't you answer? Don't you hear? Can you speak only your own heathen tongue?" continued Lothaire.
"The Norman is no heathen tongue!" said Richard, at once breaking silence in a loud voice. "We are as good Christians as you are—ay, and better too."
"Hush! hush! my Lord!" said Osmond.
"What now, Sir Duke," again interfered the King, in an angry tone, "are you brawling already? Time, indeed, I should take you from your own savage court. Sir Squire, look to it, that you keep your charge in better rule, or I shall send him instantly to bed, supperless."
"My Lord, my Lord," whispered Osmond, "see you not that you are bringing discredit on all of us?"
"I would be courteous enough, if they would be courteous to me," returned Richard, gazing with eyes full of defiance at Lothaire, who, returning an angry look, had nevertheless shrunk back to his mother. She meanwhile was saying, "So strong, so rough, the young savage is, he will surely harm our poor boys!"
"Never fear," said Louis; "he shall be watched. And," he added in a lower tone, "for the present, at least, we must keep up appearances. Hubert of Senlis, and Hugh of Paris, have their eyes on us, and were the boy to be missed, the grim old Harcourt would have all the pirates of his land on us in the twinkling of an eye. We have him, and there we must rest content for the present. Now to supper."
At supper, Richard sat next little Carloman, who peeped at him every now and then from under his eyelashes, as if he was afraid of him; and presently, when there was a good deal of talking going on, so that his voice could not be heard, half whispered, in a very grave tone, "Do you like salt beef or fresh?"
"I like fresh," answered Richard, with equal gravity, "only we eat salt all the winter."
There was another silence, and then Carloman, with the same solemnity, asked, "How old are you?"
"I shall be nine on the eve of St. Boniface. How old are you?"
"Eight. I was eight at Martinmas, and Lothaire was nine three days since."
Another silence; then, as Osmond waited on Richard, Carloman returned to the charge, "Is that your Squire?"
"Yes, that is Osmond de Centeville."
"How tall he is!"
"We Normans are taller than you French."
"Don't say so to Lothaire, or you will make him angry."
"Why? it is true."
"Yes; but—" and Carloman sunk his voice— "there are some things which Lothaire will not hear said. Do not make him cross, or he will make my mother displeased with you. She caused Thierry de Lincourt to be scourged, because his ball hit Lothaire's face."
"She cannot scourge me—I am a free Duke," said Richard. "But why? Did he do it on purpose?"
"And was Lothaire hurt?"
"Hush! you must say Prince Lothaire. No; it was quite a soft ball."
"Why?" again asked Richard—"why was he scourged?"
"I told you, because he hit Lothaire."
"Well, but did he not laugh, and say it was nothing? Alberic quite knocked me down with a great snowball the other day, and Sir Eric laughed, and said I must stand firmer."
"Do you make snowballs?"
"To be sure I do! Do not you?"
"Oh, no! the snow is so cold."
"Ah! you are but a little boy," said Richard, in a superior manner. Carloman asked how it was done; and Richard gave an animated description of the snowballing, a fortnight ago, at Rouen, when Osmond and some of the other young men built a snow fortress, and defended it against Richard, Alberic, and the other Squires. Carloman listened with delight, and declared that next time it snowed, they would have a snow castle; and thus, by the time supper was over, the two little boys were very good friends.
Bedtime came not long after supper. Richard's was a smaller room than he had been used to at Rouen; but it amazed him exceedingly when he first went into it: he stood gazing in wonder, because, as he said, "It was as if he had been in a church."
"Yes, truly!" said Osmond. "No wonder these poor creatures of French cannot stand before a Norman lance, if they cannot sleep without glass to their windows. Well! what would my father say to this?"
"And see! see, Osmond! they have put hangings up all round the walls, just like our Lady's church on a great feast-day. They treat us just as if we were the holy saints; and here are fresh rushes strewn about the floor, too. This must be a mistake—it must be an oratory, instead of my chamber."
"No, no, my Lord; here is our gear, which I bade Sybald and Henry see bestowed in our chamber. Well, these Franks are come to a pass, indeed! My grandmother will never believe what we shall have to tell her. Glass windows and hangings to sleeping chambers! I do not like it; I am sure we shall never be able to sleep, closed up from the free air of heaven in this way: I shall be always waking, and fancying I am in the chapel at home, hearing Father Lucas chanting his matins. Besides, my father would blame me for letting you be made as tender as a Frank. I'll have out this precious window, if I can."
Luxurious as the young Norman thought the King, the glazing of Laon was not permanent. It consisted of casements, which could be put up or removed at pleasure; for, as the court possessed only one set of glass windows, they were taken down, and carried from place to place, as often as Louis removed from Rheims to Soissons, Laon, or any other of his royal castles; so that Osmond did not find much difficulty in displacing them, and letting in the sharp, cold, wintry breeze. The next thing he did was to give his young Lord a lecture on his want of courtesy, telling him that "no wonder the Franks thought he had no more culture than a Viking (or pirate), fresh caught from Norway. A fine notion he was giving them of the training he had at Centeville, if he could not even show common civility to the Queen—a lady! Was that the way Alberic had behaved when he came to Rouen?"
"Fru Astrida did not make sour faces at him, nor call him a young savage," replied Richard.
"No, and he gave her no reason to do so; he knew that the first teaching of a young Knight is to be courteous to ladies—never mind whether fair and young, or old and foul of favour. Till you learn and note that, Lord Richard, you will never be worthy of your golden spurs."
"And the King told me she would treat me as a mother," exclaimed Richard. "Do you think the King speaks the truth, Osmond?"
"That we shall see by his deeds," said Osmond.
"He was very kind while we were in Normandy. I loved him so much better than the Count de Harcourt; but now I think that the Count is best! I'll tell you, Osmond, I will never call him grim old Bernard again."
"You had best not, sir, for you will never have a more true-hearted vassal."
"Well, I wish we were back in Normandy, with Fru Astrida and Alberic. I cannot bear that Lothaire. He is proud, and unknightly, and cruel. I am sure he is, and I will never love him."
"Hush, my Lord!—beware of speaking so loud. You are not in your own Castle."
"And Carloman is a chicken-heart," continued Richard, unheeding. "He does not like to touch snow, and he cannot even slide on the ice, and he is afraid to go near that great dog—that beautiful wolf-hound."
"He is very little," said Osmond.
"I am sure I was not as cowardly at his age, now was I, Osmond? Don't you remember?"
"Come, Lord Richard, I cannot let you wait to remember everything; tell your beads and pray that we may be brought safe back to Rouen; and that you may not forget all the good that Father Lucas and holy Abbot Martin have laboured to teach you."
So Richard told the beads of his rosary—black polished wood, with amber at certain spaces—he repeated a prayer with every bead, and Osmond did the same; then the little Duke put himself into a narrow crib of richly carved walnut; while Osmond, having stuck his dagger so as to form an additional bolt to secure the door, and examined the hangings that no secret entrance might be concealed behind them, gathered a heap of rushes together, and lay down on them, wrapped in his mantle, across the doorway. The Duke was soon asleep; but the Squire lay long awake, musing on the possible dangers that surrounded his charge, and on the best way of guarding against them.