"C OME to the window, Ermenoldus. See how the country stretches out,—fields and vineyards and corn land! There's no richer ground in the whole duchy of Normandy."
"You and Duke Richard rule it together, do you not, my lord?"
"No. We hold it together after a fashion, but he rules. I am his vassal. Hiesmes is mine, and this goodly castle of Falaise ought to go with it."
"Was the duke your father's favorite, my lord?"
"Doesn't it look like it, when he left me only Hiesmes and then cut off the best part of it for Richard?"
"Could it have been suggested to him, my lord?"
"You mean, did Richard tell him to do it," said Count Robert bluntly. "Who knows what one man has said to another? Richard was with him from morning till night. My father called him a 'good youth.' I suppose I was a bad one," and the young man laughed recklessly. "Anyway, Richard is Duke of Normandy, and I am only the Count of the Hiesmois; and here I am in the village of Falaise that ought to be mine, collecting taxes that ought to be mine, and putting them safely away for my brother in the treasure-room of the castle that ought to be mine."
"This castle seems to be of good strength, my lord. The walls are thick and heavy. It would not be easy to batter them down. It stands at the very edge of the cliff, and the cliff falls down sheer to the valley. No one could approach on that side."
"No; it's a strong castle, but I have none that could not be captured in a day. Come to the window again, Ermenoldus. See what a mass of rook the castle is built on, and how it juts out over the valley! Across the Ante is that other great, jagged precipice. You're a wizard, Ermenoldus; I verily believe you are. Couldn't you build me a castle on Mount Mirat yonder that would be as strong as this?"
I'm not enough of a wizard to give you a castle, my lord," said Ermenoldus; "and yet, there's more than one way," he half whispered. Count Robert did not hear the whisper, for he had turned again to the narrow window.
"If those girls are as pretty as they are graceful and merry," he said, "they would be well worth seeing. Ermenoldus, will you call some one to get my horse? or, if you stamp three times on the stone under your feet, won't the horse come of its own accord, all saddled and bridled?"
"You think too highly of the little that I have learned," said Ermenoldus.
"I'm not sure, though," said the count laughing, "but you are in league with the fiend himself and know all that there is to be known. Whence do you come and whither do you go? You appear and then you disappear, and all I know is that you are gone."
"Never did I go faster than you will go to gaze upon the pretty maidens washing linen on the banks of the stream," said Ermenoldus; "only I beg you, my lord, don't ride down over the cliff in your haste. All my magic could not save you then;" but Count Robert was already at the gate, and the next minute he was galloping down the rough, rocky way that led to the foot of the cliff.
The linen had been spread out on the grass to dry and to whiten in the hot sun, and the young girls were frolicking in the ripples of the little stream, laughing and splashing water at one another. One had bent down a green bough and held it in front of her face to protect it.
"By my faith!" said Count Robert to himself, "if that maiden's face is as fair as her little feet are white, she's prettier than all the high-born dames at my brother's castle." Just then the maiden let go the green branch and it sprang up above her head.
"Let's dance," she said, "not splash water at one another like children."
"That's a fairer face than I ever saw before," thought the count, as he stopped his horse, and hidden by the trees, gazed at the young girls in their playful imitation of the village dance, their white feet now twinkling in the green grass on the river's brink, and now splashing rainbow drops around them.
"See how high the sun is," said one of the girls. "The linen is dry, and we must go home."
"I'm tired. I'm going to rest awhile here under the trees before I go," said the maiden of the green branch.
"But the sun is almost overhead," said one girl. "Won't your mother beat you if you do not come?"
"Beat? What is that? No one ever beats me," she replied indifferently. "You carry the linen home for me, and I will come when I have had my little nap. Good-by, my friends," and she waved them a farewell as she sat on the bank with her head on her hand, half reclining on the soft green grass in the shadow of the trees.
"Well, if that isn't Arletta!" said one young girl. "She commands us to carry home her linen for her, and we obey. We always do just what she tells us to. Listen! Now she is singing. If I stayed after the washing was done to sleep on the bank and to sing songs, I should have a sound beating, but Arletta always does what she likes." The maidens went slowly down the valley. Arletta half closed her eyes, and sang softly to herself.
"And may I listen to the pretty song?" said a voice coming so suddenly that it seemed to be just at her ear. Arletta sprang to her feet and made a humble courtesy, and then stood still, too abashed to look up. The rider had dismounted and stood holding his hat with its long plume in one hand and the horse's bridle in the other.
"Are you one of the maidens of Falaise?" he asked, and then smiled at the idle question, for where else could she belong?
"I'm Arletta," she answered, looking up shyly, "and my father is Fulbert the tanner."
"Strange that such a flower should blossom in the foul garden of a tanner," said Robert to himself.
"Are you the great Duke Richard?" asked the maiden.
"No, I'm not," said Robert half gloomily. "I'm nobody but Count Robert, his younger brother; and I haven't even a strong castle to bless myself with. But you must be tired. Isn't this washing too hard work for a girl like you?"
"Oh, no, I am strong," she said. "All the girls come out here to wash the linen for their homes."
"Shouldn't you rather stay at home and have some one to wash the linen for you? When you braid your hair, you could braid in a cord of shining gold, and you could wear a silken mantle and fasten it with a golden clasp."
"But it is only the great ladies in castles who wear silken mantles and braid gold in their hair," said Arletta, smiling, nevertheless, at the thought of so much luxury.
"And should you like to have a young man ride up on a great black horse to see you? He would have a feather in his hat, and perhaps he would wear a gold chain, if he is only a count, and he might bring you one day a jewelled band for your hair, and another day a veil of silken tissue, or perhaps a mantle of silk or of velvet. Should you like it?" Arletta said nothing, but her cheeks were bright red. Her eyes were bent on the ground, but when she ventured to look up for a moment, they were glittering with excitement.
"Farewell, my pretty Arletta," said he, "but it will not be many days before you will hear from me." He sprang upon his horse, kissed his hand to her gayly, and rode away, the horse's hoofs clattering on the fragments of stone in the road.
Whatever were Robert's faults, no one could accuse him of putting off what he meant to do, and it was only the next day when Fulbert came meekly from his tan-yard at the demand of the young noble.
"I have seen many a high-born maiden," said Robert without a word of explanation or preface, "and your daughter pleases me better than all of them. I would have her as the lady of the castle. Will you send her to me to-morrow?"
"The child of a tanner cannot well consort with the lord of a castle," said the father bravely, but with a trembling voice.
"And I have no castle worthy of the name," said Count Robert bitterly, "but I suppose that I may have a bride."
"The great folk have the power to take whom they will," said the tanner, his voice choking in his throat, "but I would have had my daughter wed one of her own station, and not in the castle but in the little church; and I wanted my kinsfolk and her mother's to look at her and smile upon her, and then to come to our house and rejoice that Arletta was going to her own home with the one that she had chosen."
"As you will," said the count, with pretended indifference; "but before you refuse, ask the girl herself. If she says no, I will leave her; but should she choose to say yes, you shall lose nothing by having your daughter the bride of a noble."
In the tiny inner room of the cottage stood Arletta, trembling and flushing.
"Hasten, Arletta," said her mother, Doda. "Hasten, and put on your best robe, the gray with the blue belt. He will go. A count will not wait long for a tanner's daughter. Tell him that you are ready—but, no; tell him that you will agree if—no, that will not do; ask him humbly if he would not rather that his bride were the daughter of a brewer than of a tanner; and tell him that if he would only give your father the gold to become a brewer, he would not be shamed that you have come from the home of a tanner."
"But perhaps I do not wish to go to the castle," said Arletta indifferently. "Perhaps I would rather walk to the church with all the village maidens, and have a wedding feast."
"Arletta, why will you torment me? Hasten; I do not hear a sound. Perhaps he is already gone. One would think you had no idea how great an honor it is. Don't you know that he can wed whom he will?"
"The one that weds me will be the one that I will," said Arletta.
"You are a proud, undutiful girl," said Doda. "Pull those folds more on the shoulders, and draw the girdle to the right. There, I hear his voice again. He has not gone."
"No, he has not gone," said Arletta, with a peculiar little smile, and she went forward slowly, till she stood in the opening between the two rooms. The soft gray garment hung in long folds from her shoulders, and was confined at the waist by a blue belt. Her cheeks were red, and her eyes shone.
"Go to him. Tell him you are sorry you have kept him so long," whispered Doda, twitching her daughter's robe, for she had crept up softly behind the girl. But Arletta did not take even a single step through the opening. She stood with one foot drawn back, as if she might disappear in a moment. So beautiful she was that Robert bent on one knee before her, and kissed her hand as if she had been some maiden of high degree.
"The next time that I see you, shall it be in the castle? Will you come to me, Arletta?"
"Say yes," whispered her mother, and even Fulbert had begun to realize that this was a great opportunity, and to fear lest the wayward damsel should refuse so lordly a suitor.
"Will you come, Arletta?" asked the count gently, looking eagerly into her eyes.
"Yes, I will come," said Arletta, with slow graciousness, and with a touch of condescension in manner that would have seemed to belong to a princess rather than to a simple maiden of the people. The count slipped about her neck a slender gold chain with a pearl in every link.
"That is to hold you fast," he said. "The castle is a grim and dreary place; but I know where there is a little door that leads to a chamber the thickness of the wall. It is dark and gloomy now, but people who are wise in using colors shall paint the walls with blue and gold and vermilion. The hangings shall be of silk, and every day the straw on the floor shall be bright with fresh flowers; and there shall you abide, and, tanner's daughter as you are, you shall be treated as if you were a king's daughter."
"Tell him you are grateful," whispered Doda anxiously, but Arletta only smiled slightly, with the air of one conferring a favor. The count sprang upon his great black horse, and went his way to the castle.
As he dropped his bridle into the hands of a servant, he asked:—
"And where is Ermenoldus?"
"Truly, my lord, I do not know," said the man. "He was here, and then he was not here, and when he was here he said, 'Tell my lord there is a message from me,' and then he was not here."
"Folly! no man could leave the castle unless the gate was opened for him. If you are telling me false, I'll have you thrown from the top of the cliff."
"Indeed, my lord, it is true," said the servant earnestly. "He was here, and then he was not here, and he said there was a message for you that you could read only in the glow of the fire."
"I believe the man is in league with the fiend," said Robert to himself. "To leave me just when I wanted him most!"
That night, when the count went to his bed, there lay on his pillow a scroll, closely tied with a golden cord that was wrought into an intricacy of many twists and coils. Impatiently he struggled with the knot.
"There's surely magic about it," he said, "and I have heard that if one cuts a magic knot, the wizardry will all turn against him," so he pulled and turned and twisted the golden thread, until all of a sudden it seemed to fly apart of its own accord under his fingers. Apparently nothing was written on the scroll, but as he held it half fearfully before the fire in the castle hall, there came out, letter by letter, a message. He read it slowly, for he was more used to reading the faces of men than lettering on parchment. It was this:—
"When one holds that which he would have, let him see to him see to it that he hold it fast."
"Indeed I will," he said under his breath. "Arletta is mine, and the workmen shall work as never before, and if the little room in the tower is not ready in two days, some one shall go into the dungeon."
No one was thrown into the dungeon, for on the second day the little chamber in the wall was as bright and cheery as a place could be that had but a single window, and that a tiny one. However, people thought more of safety than of sunlight in those days, and the smallness of the opening was looked upon as an advantage. The frowning vaulting of the gray stonework that made the top of the room was hidden by a light blue coloring, half veiled by a graceful scrollwork of gold. All about the little window the stone was stained a deep, rich vermilion, and the walls were hung with heavy silken tapestries of a clear, sunny yellow. The floor was strewn with the softest of straw, and over it were sprinkled fresh roses from which the pages had removed every thorn. With precious stones—cut from the count's mantle of state—hung here and there on the walls, the little room flashed when the door was thrown open as if it was full of humming-birds.
All was ready, and Robert sent a chamberlain for Arletta. Behold, he returned without the village maiden!
"She would not come with me," he explained. "She said she would not come to the castle as a serving maid, she would come as the bride of a great lord; and she bade me return, if you were of the same mind, with an escort of palfreys well caparisoned, and with a due attendance. 'I do not go to the castle to beg,' she said—and O my lord, she looked like a queen when she said it—'I go of my own will, and as the free maiden daughter of a gallant man. I will not creep up hill with a single chamberlain as my escort. If I am worth having, I am worth sending for in proper state. Then, too, the count has sent me no finely woven robe and no silken mantle. I have nothing save what is the gift of my father. Would he have me come to him wearing the gift of a tanner, or would he have me wear nothing at all but the little chain of gold and pearls?' Then she turned away, and I saw her no more." The count laughed.
"I like her the better for it," said he. "And now do you make up an escort as you would for the daughter of a duke. Carry her the handsomest tunic and mantle to be found in the castle. Choose the best palfreys, and have them as well groomed and as handsomely caparisoned as for a queen. Let twenty men-at-arms go with you, and see to it that you delay not in going. As for the coming, the fair Arletta will choose her own pace."
The little procession went forth and made its way along the rocky road to the home of the tanner. Robert watched it eagerly as it carne slowly up the hill. At the castle gate there was a halt.
"Throw the gates open wide," he heard a low, clear voice say. "I am not an uninvited guest. I come here at the wish of the count and of my own free will."
"Let him see to it that he hold it fast," said Robert, "and that I will," and he hastened to welcome the fair Arletta.
Month after month passed away, but the charm of the tanner's daughter for the young count did not grow less. Whether she met him in her plain gray gown, with the playful humility of a village maiden, or in the rich robes of the lady of the castle, to whom all must do honor, and with a pride and haughtiness equal to that of the count's aristocratic grandfather, Richard the Fearless, she was equally fascinating to Count Robert. His brother's interests were forgotten. Of his own he took no heed. It began to be whispered that he would not willingly depart from the castle of Falaise.
Now Normandy and the districts round about were swarming with people, too many for even so fertile a country to nourish. The land had been divided and subdivided until the share of a man would no longer support those who were in helpless dependence upon him. There was restlessness everywhere. The women of the household must abide at home; nowhere else was there protection or safety. The fathers of families must struggle on as best they could; but the young men were held back by no question of fear, bound by no demands of any who were dependent upon them. From one domain to another they wandered, ready to throw themselves vehemently into whatever cause might come to hand. They were any man's soldiers if he would pay them well. They would follow the sound of the tinkling silver wherever it might lead.
The country about was full of such men, and at the first whisper of the count's unwillingness to leave Falaise, they hastened to the castle. The weapon lay at Robert's hand. Would he use it? One of the boldest of the young soldiers made his way to the count.
"Here we are," he said, "and here are our weapons. Can you make use of us and of them? We will fight for you bravely and faithfully."