"The Mystery of the Rivers"
As Alan and Henri stood on either side of Count Bertram, ready to wait upon him as he was eating his breakfast, "Lad," he said, "isn't this the day for your lessons with Father Herluin?"
"Yes, sir count," answered Alan, as both boys drew a long face at the prospect.
"Never mind!" said Count Bertram, laughing good-humoredly. "Pay attention and learn what he tells you, and when you are through come to the falcon mew and I will give you a lesson more to your liking."
The boys' faces brightened at this, and when the count had finished they joined the other children and trooped off quite briskly to school in the little chapel which was part of the castle and of which Father Herluin was priest. Noble families had to provide religious services in their own homes as they generally lived too far away from any church; and the good priest was also, two or three times a week, school-master to the castle children.
When his pupils had seated themselves in the chapel, Father Herluin first gave them a lesson on church matters. Then, taking from a shelf the written and painted prayer-book, which was the castle library, he taught them a little reading. Next came a little less arithmetic and still less of geography; this last studied from a ridiculous map made by hand and showing a very queer world with the strange animals and monsters which map-makers then put in whenever they were in doubt about places. And they were in doubt about many, for everybody thought the earth flat instead of round, and had very little idea of the true shapes of lands and seas.
Sometimes the children learned a trifle about the stars or plants or whatever else Father Herluin happened to know; but it was not much like the lessons boys and girls must learn now.
After two hours the school was over for the day; and as there were no school-books nor paper nor pencils, of course there was no studying between times.
Blanchette and Marie went back to learn some household matters from Lady Gisla, and the boys raced off to the falcon mew.
Falcons were used in hunting; and however little a boy of that time could read or write, one thing he was taught thoroughly, and that was to be an accomplished huntsman, as this was the favorite sport of those of gentle birth.
There were two kinds of hunting; that called "the
mystery of the woods" consisted in chasing wild
animals, such as deer or boars, through the forest; and
this was much like the sport of
But "mystery of the rivers," was quite a different affair as it was the chasing of birds through the sky; and, for this, falcons, very strong and swift-winged birds of the hawk family, were especially trained.
This kind of hunting was called "the mystery of the rivers" because the herons and other birds which the falcons were taught to attack made their nests on the banks of rivers. Every noble youth must know how to train and care for the falcons, and as he must learn also dozens of special words to use in speaking of the birds and their every movement it took really quite a long time to master the art of falconry, or hawking, as it was often called.
"Well, lads," said Count Bertram, who was already in the mew,—the room where the falcons were kept,—"I hope you are a great deal wiser than when I saw you last!"
"Yes, sir count," said Henri, "we learned ever so much this morning." And then he quickly added, "Have you seen my falcon, sir?" I am afraid she is not well, she seems so mopy."
"Which is yours, Henri?" asked Count Bertram, looking at the dozen or more hawklike birds perched about the room. "Oh, that one over there with her head down?" he added. "I don't think there is anything the matter with her. Just try her with the lure."
Henri took a silver whistle from a shelf nearby and fastened a bit of meat to it beneath a bunch of gay feathers dangling from one end. "Wait a minute," said the count, "till Alan loosens her jesses!" And Alan hastened to unfasten from the perch the little leather thongs attached to her legs.
Henri then blew the whistle and the bird, raising its head, immediately spread its wings and in an instant had lighted on his wrist and was trying to get the bit of meat, while all the other falcons strained at their jesses and tried to reach him, too.
The whistle, or lure, was thus made attractive with feathers and meat while the birds were being trained to come when they heard it blown; for it was by the lure that the huntsman drew the falcon back to him when a hunt was over.
As Henri's bird flew toward him there was a pretty tinkling sound; and, indeed, every time any of the falcons moved about on their perches there was a musical sound, for every one of them had a tiny bell, like a little sleigh-bell, strapped around each of his legs just above the toes; and these bells and the leather jesses they always wore. Several of them wore another very odd thing, a little hood made of cloth or leather and covering the whole head, beak, eyes, and all. These hoods were put on the fiercer birds to make them tamer and protect their trainer from their beaks; also, when they were taken out to hunt all wore hoods so that nothing might distract their attention till time to begin the chase, when the head covering was plucked off.
"Whose bird is that with the red hood?" asked Count Bertram, as he noticed one of the smaller and younger birds restlessly moving on its perch and trying to shake off its gay head covering.
"Oh, that is Marie's, sir count," answered Alan, "she is very proud of that hood, and Blanchette is making a green one for hers!"
For the girls, too, had their pet falcons, and ladies often followed the sport with the men.
"Well, lads," again asked the count, "do you know your lesson in the falconry language: What do I mean when I say the falcon's 'arms'?"
"His legs, sir," answered Henri.
"And his 'sails'?" continued the count.
"His wings, sir," said Alan.
"What are his 'beams'?" again asked the count, "and what is he doing when he 'mantles,' or 'jouks,' or 'bates'?"
"Very good," said the count, smiling; and then after questioning the lads a little further, he said: "Now you may feed the birds; but don't give them much, as we will fly some of them this afternoon and they must still be hungry enough to be interested in the quarry." For so was called the bird or hare or whatever prey the falcon went in chase of.
Alan at once went to the castle kitchen where he got some pieces of beef and mutton which he placed on a bunch of feathers from the breast of a heron, one of the birds the falcons were taught to pursue. When all was ready Henri and the other pages began to shout at the tops of their voices, and going into the courtyard called about them a number of the count's hunting dogs, which they soon had yelping and bow-wowing at the tops of their voices also. This was done so the falcons might become so used to it that when they were taken out to hunt they would attack a real heron and not be disturbed or frightened by the shouting and barking that was sure to go on around them.
The count looked on approvingly, and after a few more directions, he said, "After dinner I am going out with Hugh and one or two of my squires for a little sport, and you boys may come along."
The lads' eyes danced, and just as soon as dinner was over they hurried back to the mew to bring the count his bird.
As the little party rode out the castle gate on Count Bertram's right fist perched the falcon, the jesses on its legs caught in a small hook in the back of his heavy glove and a brown hood over its head. Hugh and one of the other squires carried falcons, also, but Alan and Henri being only pages must content themselves with watching the others and learning all they could.
They rode down the cliff road and through the meadows till they came to a little river, fringed by willow and poplar trees.
Presently, "Look!" cried Alan to Henri, in a low voice, as up from a cluster of willows a blue heron rose in flight.
At the same moment Count Bertram, who was riding in front, quickly plucking the hood from his falcon's head, with a shrill cry, "Haw! Haw! Ho now!" loosed it for pursuit. "Haw! Haw! Ho now!" shouted Hugh and the other squires; for this was one of the cries by which the falcons were taught to speed to the attack.
But Count Bertram's bird needed no urging as up, up it soared, mounting the air in great spiral curves.
Meantime, the poor heron, seeing its pursuer, was trying its best to fly away.
As the little party of huntsmen dashed along breathlessly watching the two birds, up, up, still higher soared the falcon, till for an instant it poised, a dark speck in the blue sky, while beneath it the blue heron fled on frightened wings. Then, like lightning, the falcon swooped down, hurling its powerful body full upon the heron, striking it with such force that it dropped to earth stunned by the blow. In another moment the falcon was upon it, and the jingle of little bells told only too plainly how claws and beak were doing their deadly work.
"Bravo!" cried Count Bertram. "What think you, Hugh? Was not that a pretty flight?"
"Yes, sir count," answered Hugh with enthusiasm, "the falcon went like an arrow to the mark!"
After Count Bertram had flown his bird a few more times the two squires took turns with theirs. Later on, as the afternoon waned, each of the huntsmen took the little silver lure, which dangled from his wrist, and whistled his falcon back, and the three birds were again hooded and each fastened securely to the glove of his master.
When the party returned to the castle, Count Bertram handed his falcon to Alan to be placed in the mew; and as the boy carefully received it the count looked critically to see that he held his elbow crooked at just the right angle, and that his fist was doubled up in precisely the correct way to carry the bird; for all these matters were considered as important to be learned as any lesson in manners.