The Castle of Noireat
Meantime the cooks and scullions had all hurried back to their work, and as dinner was nearly ready Count Bertram invited the heralds into the castle; to be sure it was only eleven o'clock, but that was the usual hour for the midday meal.
The Count and Lady Gisla both looked very handsome as they led the way up a flight of steps to the door of the great square tower of stone, called the keep, which was the main part of the castle. Count Bertram was dressed in a tunic of dark crimson and over his black hose narrow strips of green cloth were criss-crossed up to his knees where they were tied in knots with fringed ends; his pointed leather shoes were dark crimson and so was his cap and the short mantle fastened over one shoulder with a silver clasp. Lady Gisla wore a gown of violet-colored cloth with close bodice and flaring sleeves, and her long skirt was caught up in front by a silken girdle from which hung a number of silver keys; on her head was a pointed cap, and a square of lace fastened to its peak partly covered her hair which fell over her shoulders in loose flowing locks.
Within the keep was one huge room called the hall. Heavy stone pillars upheld the floor of an upper story, and high up in the thick walls were long, narrow windows; there was no glass in these for glass was scarce and imperfect then; but sometimes in winter, when it was very cold, the windows were filled in with pieces of waxed linen instead. At either end of the room was a great fireplace; one was for warmth in winter time, while at the other the castle cooking went on the year around, for there was no other kitchen. And as there were no chimneys either, the smoke from the blazing logs, over which the cooks were busy with dinner, curled up into the hall and found its way out through the windows as best it could, which, of course, wasn't very well.
On the castle walls were no pictures, but here and there hung large pieces of cloth so skillfully embroidered that they looked almost like pictures, and here and there were fastened the antlers of a stag or a bow and sheaf of arrows. Rushes were strewn over the stone floor which was raised a little at one side of the room and called the dais. Here serving-men were placing long boards over some wooden trestles, this making a table for the lord and lady. Others were arranging a similar but much longer one down the length of the hall. There were no cloths on either of these tables, for nobody had any; and as for forks, folks expected their fingers to answer. Count Bertram and Lady Gisla had some silver dishes and glass cups; but on the long table for the household between each two persons was set an oblong wooden dish called a trencher, and this must do for a plate for both; their cups were pewter or else part of a cow's horn hollowed out and set in metal.
When all had taken their places on the benches that served for seats the long table was quite filled, for there were many people in the household. Besides the serving-folk, and the pages and squires and other attendants of gentle birth, often some wandering knight or minstrel or pilgrim or herald added to the company. Several of the pages and squires, however, did not sit down with the others but stood on the dais ready to wait upon Count Bertram and Lady Gisla, for one of the first things taught to them was obedience and service.
Of the pages, Alan and Henri, who were inseparable friends, were favorites of the Count, while of the squires he preferred to be served by a youth named Hugh, who had been at Noireat a number of years and was now almost ready for knighthood. These three now busied themselves to attend their master, while others of their number served Lady Gisla and the little girls who sat beside her.
Henri had already been to the well in the courtyard and filled a sliver pitcher and now he brought also a silver basin, and after Count Bertram was seated at the table he poured the water over his hands into the basin and then presented him a small linen towel on which to dry them.
Meantime, Alan had gone to the kitchen end of the great hall. Here the cooks were busy at the big smoky fireplace dishing up food cooked in the copper kettles and saucepans which they pulled to the hearth from the glowing coals. On a long spit in front of the fire were pieces of roasted meat, and on either side tired little dogs were lying hungrily sniffing the food they dared not touch till their own turn came.
Each dog had a little chain fastened around his body, one end of the chain being hooked to the spit, and for almost an hour they had been obliged to walk back and forth, thus turning the spit and keeping the meat from burning. For that was the way dogs had to help cook in those days.
"How are you, Bowser? How are you, Towser?" (perhaps those were not their real names, but never mind) said Alan, as he gently poked with his foot, first one and then the other of the dogs as he waited for the cook to place some meat on the silver platter he had brought.
Henri, too, now came to the kitchen fireplace, and "There is a dish of pigeons for you to bring," said Alan as he went off with his platter.
When he set it before Count Bertram, "Where is the carving knife?" asked Hugh, who was standing by ready to carve the meat, which was one of the duties of a squire.
"Oh, dear!" cried Alan, flushing, "I never can remember that knife!" And off he hurried to the kitchen so fast that he nearly ran into Henri and his pigeons. When the knife was brought, Hugh, holding the meat firmly with a wooden skewer, carefully carved it, the two boys watching intently as he did it.
"That's right," said Count Bertram, "see how he does it, lads! Hugh will soon be a knight and go away, and then, by and by, I will expect my new squires, Alan and Henri, to do my carving,"
When the meat was served the boys brought dishes of beans, cabbage, turnips and other vegetables, but no potatoes, for the very good reason that none grew in Normandy as yet. Along with these they brought also the cake and custard and sweet things, which people then ate any time they pleased during the meal instead of keeping them for dessert as we would.
When Count Bertram had risen from his seat, the two pages went to the long table in the center of the hall where they found places side by side with a wooden trencher between them.
When everybody had finished eating, very likely a number of bones had been flung under the table; and it is quite possible, too, that some of the brown dogs had crept up from the kitchen hearth or the courtyard, and lying on the rumpled-up rushes munched and gnawed to their hearts' content. For people in those days were not such particular housekeepers as we are.