R ICHARD of Normandy was very anxious to know more of the little boy whom he had seen among his vassals.
"Ah! the young Baron de Montemar," said Sir Eric. "I knew his father well, and a brave man he was, though not of northern blood. He was warden of the marches of the Epte, and was killed by your father's side in the inroad of the Viscount du Cotentin, at the time when you were born, Lord Richard."
"But where does he live? Shall I not see him again?"
"Montemar is on the bank of the Epte, in the domain that the French wrongfully claim from us. He lives there with his mother, and if he be not yet returned, you shall see him presently. Osmond, go you and seek out the lodgings of the young Montemar, and tell him the Duke would see him."
Richard had never had a playfellow of his own age, and his eagerness to see Alberic de Montemar was great. He watched from the window, and at length beheld Osmond entering the court with a boy of ten years old by his side, and an old grey-headed Squire, with a golden chain to mark him as a Seneschal or Steward of the Castle, walking behind.
Richard ran to the door to meet them, holding out his hand eagerly. Alberic uncovered his bright dark hair, bowed low and gracefully, but stood as if he did not exactly know what to do next. Richard grew shy at the same moment, and the two boys stood looking at each other somewhat awkwardly. It was easy to see that they were of different races, so unlike were the blue eyes, flaxen hair, and fair face of the young Duke, to the black flashing eyes and olive cheek of his French vassal, who, though two years older, was scarcely above him in height; and his slight figure, well-proportioned, active and agile as it was, did not give the same promise of strength as the round limbs and large-boned frame of Richard, which even now seemed likely to rival the gigantic stature of his grandfather, Earl Rollo, the Ganger.
For some minutes the little Duke and the young Baron stood surveying each other without a word, and old Sir Eric did not improve matters by saying, "Well, Lord Duke, here he is. Have you no better greeting for him?"
"The children are shame-faced," said Fru Astrida, seeing how they both coloured. "Is your Lady mother in good health, my young sir?"
Alberic blushed more deeply, bowed to the old northern lady, and answered fast and low in French, "I cannot speak the Norman tongue."
Richard, glad to say something, interpreted Fru Astrida's speech, and Alberic readily made courteous reply that his mother was well, and he thanked the Dame de Centeville, a French title which sounded new to Fru Astrida's ears. Then came the embarrassment again, and Fru Astrida at last said, "Take him out, Lord Richard; take him to see the horses in the stables, or the hounds, or what not."
Richard was not sorry to obey, so out they went into the court of Rollo's tower, and in the open air the shyness went off. Richard showed his own pony, and Alberic asked if he could leap into the saddle without putting his foot in the stirrup. No, Richard could not; indeed, even Osmond had never seen it done, for the feats of French chivalry had scarcely yet spread into Normandy.
"Can you?" said Richard; "will you show us?"
"I know I can with my own pony," said Alberic, "for Bertrand will not let me mount in any other way; but I will try with yours, if you desire it, my Lord."
So the pony was led out. Alberic laid one hand on its mane, and vaulted on its back in a moment. Both Osmond and Richard broke out loudly into admiration. "Oh, this is nothing!" said Alberic. "Bertrand says it is nothing. Before he grew old and stiff he could spring into the saddle in this manner fully armed. I ought to do this much better."
Richard begged to be shown how to perform the exploit, and Alberic repeated it; then Richard wanted to try, but the pony's patience would not endure any longer, and Alberic said he had learnt on a block of wood, and practised on the great wolf-hound. They wandered about a little longer in the court, and then climbed up the spiral stone stairs to the battlements at the top of the tower, where they looked at the house-tops of Rouen close beneath, and the river Seine, broadening and glittering on one side in its course to the sea, and on the other narrowing to a blue ribbon, winding through the green expanse of fertile Normandy. They threw the pebbles and bits of mortar down that they might hear them fall, and tried which could stand nearest to the edge of the battlement without being giddy. Richard was pleased to find that he could go the nearest, and began to tell some of Fru Astrida's stories about the precipices of Norway, among which when she was a young girl she used to climb about and tend the cattle in the long light summer time. When the two boys came down again into the hall to dinner, they felt as if they had known each other all their lives. The dinner was laid out in full state, and Richard had, as before, to sit in the great throne-like chair with the old Count of Harcourt on one side, but, to his comfort, Fru Astrida was on the other.
After the dinner, Alberic de Montemar rose to take his leave, as he was to ride half way to his home that afternoon. Count Bernard, who all dinner time had been watching him intently from under his shaggy eye-brows, at this moment turned to Richard, whom he hardly ever addressed, and said to him, "Hark ye, my Lord, what should you say to have him yonder for a comrade?"
"To stay with me?" cried Richard, eagerly. "Oh, thanks, Sir Count; and may he stay?"
"You are Lord here."
"Oh, Alberic!" cried Richard, jumping out of his chair of state, and running up to him, "will you not stay with me, and be my brother and comrade?"
Alberic looked down hesitating.
"Oh, say that you will! I will give you horses, and hawks, and hounds, and I will love you—almost as well as Osmond. Oh, stay with me, Alberic."
"I must obey you, my Lord," said Alberic, "but—"
"Come, young Frenchman, out with it," said Bernard,—"no buts! Speak honestly, and at once, like a Norman, if you can."
This rough speech seemed to restore the little Baron's self- possession, and he looked up bright and bold at the rugged face of the old Dane, while he said, "I had rather not stay here."
"Ha! not do service to your Lord?"
"I would serve him with all my heart, but I do not want to stay here. I love the Castle of Montemar better, and my mother has no one but me."
"Brave and true, Sir Frenchman," said the old Count, laying his great hand on Alberic's head, and looking better pleased than Richard thought his grim features could have appeared. Then turning to Bertrand, Alberic's Seneschal, he said, "Bear the Count de Harcourt's greetings to the noble Dame de Montemar, and say to her that her son is of a free bold spirit, and if she would have him bred up with my Lord Duke, as his comrade and brother in arms, he will find a ready welcome."
"So, Alberic, you will come back, perhaps?" said Richard.
"That must be as my mother pleases," answered Alberic bluntly, and with all due civilities he and his Seneschal departed.
Four or five times a day did Richard ask Osmond and Fru Astrida if they thought Alberic would return, and it was a great satisfaction to him to find that every one agreed that it would be very foolish in the Dame de Montemar to refuse so good an offer, only Fru Astrida could not quite believe she would part with her son. Still no Baron de Montemar arrived, and the little Duke was beginning to think less about his hopes, when one evening, as he was returning from a ride with Sir Eric and Osmond, he saw four horsemen coming towards them, and a little boy in front.
"It is Alberic himself, I am sure of it!" he exclaimed, and so it proved; and while the Seneschal delivered his Lady's message to Sir Eric, Richard rode up and greeted the welcome guest.
"Oh, I am very glad your mother has sent you!"
"She said she was not fit to bring up a young warrior of the marches," said Alberic.
"Were you very sorry to come?"
"I dare say I shall not mind it soon; and Bertrand is to come and fetch me home to visit her every three months, if you will let me go, my Lord."
Richard was extremely delighted, and thought he could never do enough to make Rouen pleasant to Alberic, who after the first day or two cheered up, missed his mother less, managed to talk something between French and Norman to Sir Eric and Fru Astrida, and became a very animated companion and friend. In one respect Alberic was a better playfellow for the Duke than Osmond de Centeville, for Osmond, playing as a grown up man, not for his own amusement, but the child's, had left all the advantages of the game to Richard, who was growing not a little inclined to domineer. This Alberic did not like, unless, as he said, "it was to be always Lord and vassal, and then he did not care for the game," and he played with so little animation that Richard grew vexed.
"I can't help it," said Alberic; "if you take all the best chances to yourself, 'tis no sport for me. I will do your bidding, as you are the Duke, but I cannot like it."
"Never mind my being Duke, but play as we used to do."
"Then let us play as I did with Bertrand's sons at Montemar. I was their Baron, as you are my Duke, but my mother said there would be no sport unless we forgot all that at play."
"Then so we will. Come, begin again, Alberic, and you shall have the first turn."
However, Alberic was quite as courteous and respectful to the Duke when they were not at play, as the difference of their rank required; indeed, he had learnt much more of grace and courtliness of demeanour from his mother, a Provencal lady, than was yet to be found among the Normans. The Chaplain of Montemar had begun to teach him to read and write, and he liked learning much better than Richard, who would not have gone on with Father Lucas's lessons at all, if Abbot Martin of Jumièges had not put him in mind that it had been his father's especial desire.
What Richard most disliked was, however, the being obliged to sit in council. The Count of Harcourt did in truth govern the dukedom, but nothing could be done without the Duke's consent, and once a week at least, there was held in the great hall of Rollo's tower, what was called a Parlement, or "a talkation," where Count Bernard, the Archbishop, the Baron de Centeville, the Abbot of Jumièges, and such other Bishops, Nobles, or Abbots, as might chance to be at Rouen, consulted on the affairs of Normandy; and there the little Duke always was forced to be present, sitting up in his chair of state, and hearing rather than listening to, questions about the repairing and guarding of Castles, the asking of loans from the vassals, the appeals from the Barons of the Exchequer, who were then Nobles sent through the duchy to administer justice, and the discussions about the proceedings of his neighbours, King Louis of France, Count Foulques of Anjou, and Count Herluin of Montreuil, and how far the friendship of Hugh of Paris, and Alan of Brittany might be trusted.
Very tired of all this did Richard grow, especially when he found that the Normans had made up their minds not to attempt a war against the wicked Count of Flanders. He sighed most wearily, yawned again and again, and moved restlessly about in his chair; but whenever Count Bernard saw him doing so, he received so severe a look and sign that he grew perfectly to dread the eye of the fierce old Dane. Bernard never spoke to him to praise him, or to enter into any of his pursuits; he only treated him with the grave distant respect due to him as a Prince, or else now and then spoke a few stern words to him of reproof for this restlessness, or for some other childish folly.
Used as Richard was to be petted and made much of by the whole house of Centeville, he resented this considerably in secret, disliked and feared the old Count, and more than once told Alberic de Montemar, that as soon as he was fourteen, when he would be declared of age, he should send Count Bernard to take care of his own Castle of Harcourt, instead of letting him sit gloomy and grim in the Castle hall in the evening, spoiling all their sport.
Winter had set in, and Osmond used daily to take the little Duke and Alberic to the nearest sheet of ice, for the Normans still prided themselves on excelling in skating, though they had long since left the frost-bound streams and lakes of Norway.
One day, as they were returning from the ice, they were surprised, even before they entered the Castle court, by hearing the trampling of horses' feet, and a sound of voices.
"What may this mean?" said Osmond. "There must surely be a great arrival of the vassals. The Duke of Brittany, perhaps."
"Oh," said Richard, piteously, "we have had one council already this week. I hope another is not coming!"
"It must import something extraordinary," proceeded Osmond. "It is a mischance that the Count of Harcourt is not at Rouen just now."
Richard thought this no mischance at all, and just then, Alberic, who had run on a little before, came back exclaiming, "They are French. It is the Frank tongue, not the Norman, that they speak."
"So please you, my Lord," said Osmond, stopping short, "we go not rashly into the midst of them. I would I knew what were best to do."
Osmond rubbed his forehead and stood considering, while the two boys looked at him anxiously. In a few seconds, before he had come to any conclusion, there came forth from the gate a Norman Squire, accompanied by two strangers.
"My Lord Duke," said he to Richard, in French, "Sir Eric has sent me to bring you tidings that the King of France has arrived to receive your homage."
"The King!" exclaimed Osmond.
"Ay!" proceeded the Norman, in his own tongue, "Louis himself, and with a train looking bent on mischief. I wish it may portend good to my Lord here. You see I am accompanied. I believe from my heart that Louis meant to prevent you from receiving a warning, and taking the boy out of his clutches."
"Ha! what?" said Richard, anxiously. "Why is the King come? What must I do?"
"Go on now, since there is no help for it," said Osmond.
"Greet the king as becomes you, bend the knee, and pay him homage."
Richard repeated over to himself the form of homage that he might be perfect in it, and walked on into the court; Alberic, Osmond, and the rest falling back as he entered. The court was crowded with horses and men, and it was only by calling out loudly, "The Duke, the Duke," that Osmond could get space enough made for them to pass. In a few moments Richard had mounted the steps and stood in the great hall.
In the chair of state, at the upper end of the room, sat a small spare man, of about eight or nine-and-twenty, pale, and of a light complexion, with a rich dress of blue and gold. Sir Eric and several other persons stood respectfully round him, and he was conversing with the Archbishop, who, as well as Sir Eric, cast several anxious glances at the little Duke as he advanced up the hall. He came up to the King, put his knee to the ground, and was just beginning, "Louis, King of France, I—" when he found himself suddenly lifted from the ground in the King's arms, and kissed on both cheeks. Then setting him on his knee, the King exclaimed, "And is this the son of my brave and noble friend, Duke William? Ah! I should have known it from his likeness. Let me embrace you again, dear child, for your father's sake."
Richard was rather overwhelmed, but he thought the King very kind, especially when Louis began to admire his height and free-spirited bearing, and to lament that his own sons, Lothaire and Carloman, were so much smaller and more backward. He caressed Richard again and again, praised every word he said—Fru Astrida was nothing to him; and Richard began to say to himself how strange and unkind it was of Bernard de Harcourt to like to find fault with him, when, on the contrary, he deserved all this praise from the King himself.
Louis of France and the Little Duke.