Our Little Norman Cousin of Long Ago - Evaleen Stein

An Invitation

It was a May morning in Normandy in the year 1066, and through all the grassy valleys the pear and apple trees were clouds of white and rosy bloom. Some of them overhung the little thatched huts of the peasant folk, which stood close together making the tiny village of Noireat; and some of the flowery trees clambered up the slopes of the steep limestone cliff that rose behind the village. Crowning this cliff was the great gray castle of Count Bertram, the lord of Noireat.

Within the walls of the castle was a large courtyard, where two boys were playing ball. Each was dressed in a tunic of dark green cloth; that is, a close-fitting garment belted at the waist and with a scant skirt reaching to just above the knew; on the boys' legs were long black hose and on their feet shoes of thick soft leather without heels and with long pointed toes; on their heads were little caps, each with a black cock's feather stuck into a buckle at one side,

Presently, "Hark, Alan!" cried one of the boys, "I thought I heard a trumpet!"

Both lads paused in their play; then as they caught clearly another shrill blast, "Come, Henri," said Alan, "let us go to the battlements and see who is coming!"

Off they scampered across the courtyard, through a narrow doorway in a strong tower near the gate of the castle and up a winding flight of stone steps that led to the top of the wall. This wall, which inclosed the castle, and to which parts of it were joined, was very thick and strong; and in a small tower over the gate-way stood a man-at-arms whose duty it was to watch all who came thither, and, if foes, to warn the lord so that he might make ready to defend himself. For in those days nobleman often made war on one another and people who lived in castles expected to keep constant watch for enemies.

But they were quite often friends as foes who rode along the steep bridle path to Noireat; for people played almost as much as they fought, and liked entertainment as well as we do to-day.

As Alan and Henri reached the top step of the winding stair, the man-at-arms, who had been gazing down at the bridle path, turned, and said with a smile, "Well, youngsters. I think we may look for one of those play fights that folks call tourneys. I'll wager yonder horseman are coming to invite Count Bertram, for they are heralds of his friend the Baron of Brecey. Do you see that zig-zag green band and the three red spots worked on the little flags hanging from their trumpets? That is the device of the Baron of Brecey."

The lads looked eagerly down at the two riders who were by this time quite near the gate-way, and, sure enough, they could make out the embroidery of which the watchman spoke.

"I don't think that device is so handsome as the red two-legged dragon on Count Bertram's flag," said Alan critically.

"Why does he have that dragon on his flag, and his shield, too?" asked Henri.

"Well," answered the watchman, rubbing his forehead, "I don't exactly know. Maybe Count Bertram, or some of his kinfolks, fought a red two-legged dragon somewhere, or maybe he just liked its looks. I don't know either whether there is any particular meaning to those spots and things the Baron of Brecey has. But it's a good thing for a knight to have some  kind of device."

"Why is it?" asked Alan.

"Why, there is a reason for it, youngster," said the watchman, "and it's this; when they go to fight in war or those play-battle tourneys or tournaments, or whatever they call them, their faces and bodies are so covered up by the armor they have to wear to protect themselves, that no one can tell who they are unless they have a device somewhere about them, painted on their shields or worked on their banners. And as most of the knights know the devices of the rest, it is about as good as having one's name told to everybody. The trouble is though that they don't all stick to the same device they pick out, but a good many of them change it sometimes when they take a notion to, and that gets people mixed up about their names."

"Count Bertram always has the red two-legged dragon," said Henri.

"Yes," replied the watchman, "and he says that by and by all the knights will have to settle on regular devices and hand them down in their families, so people can always be sure who they are.—And maybe they will," he added.

But while Alan and Henri had been talking with the watchman, the heralds had reached the gate of the castle where they halted and each blew another shrill blast on his trumpet.

At this the lads, with eyes dancing, turned about and racing down the stairs and back to the courtyard joined a group of younger boys, all, like themselves, pages in the household. Indeed, everybody in the castle had come into the courtyard by this time, from Count Bertram, the lord of Noireat and Lady Gisla, his wife, down to the cooks and scullions; for visitors were few, and if they came on peaceful errands were always warmly welcomed.

Meantime Master Herve, the gate-keeper, opened the heavy door at the end of an arched passage under the watch-tower and let down the narrow drawbridge that was held up by ropes to the castle wall. Outside the wall was the moat, a ditch filled with water deep enough to drown any one who tried to ride through it; and the drawbridge was so called because it could be drawn up and folded against the wall until the gate-keeper knew whether it was friend or foe who wished to enter.

As now the two horsemen rode into the courtyard of Noireat, a pair of little pages hurried out and held their bridles while Alan and Henri helped them dismount. One of the heralds then blew a third blast on his trumpet as the other, taking his place on the high curb of a well near by and raising his voice, called out "My master, the Baron of Brecey, sends greeting to the Count of Noireat and his household, and proclaims a tourney to be held four weeks from to-day in the meadow adjoining his castle, and he invites all Norman knights who so desire to contest for the prizes, which will be a pair of gilded spurs for the first champion and a silver hunting-horn for him adjudged second winner!"

When he had finished, everybody clapped their hands; and "Oh Henri," whispered Alan, "do you suppose Count Bertram will take us along?"

"I'm sure I hope so!" answered Henri.

"What is a tourney?" asked one of the little pages, in a low voice, as he clung tightly to the bridle of the herald's horse.

"Why," said Henri, with a superior air, for he had been to one, "it is a kind of game where knights ride on horseback and fight for fun. Their lances aren't sharp, and they don't try to kill each other, but only to see which is the best fighter, and he gets a prize. The most beautiful lady there gives it to him. And there are always lots of ladies go, for somebody has to look on, you know, and most all the men are doing the fighting."

"Oh," said the little page, with round eyes, "I wish I could go!"

"You probably can't, though," said Henri. "You are too little."

At this tears sprang to the eyes of the little page, who was only seven years old and very homesick for the castle of Briouze, which was his real home and from which he had lately been brought to Noireat. "Oh," he sobbed, "I wish I was home! Father would let me go! I don't see why everybody has to live in somebody else's house, anyway! I don't know why I had to come here!" and he began to cry in good earnest.

"There," said Henri, taking the bridle from his shaking little hand, "don't cry! You must be here, because your father is a vassal of Count Bertram. So is my father and Alan's and all the other pages'. That's why we're here, too. And I'm twelve and have been here five years. You'll like it when you get used to it: --isn't everybody good to you?"

"Y-e-s," sobbed the little page, "but I want my mother!" Here his tears broke out afresh. "Why—why can't I go home?" he quavered.

"Because," said Henri severely, "you're here to be trained. You will be a page for seven years and learn to mind, and run errands, and ride a pony, and ever so many things, and then you will be a squire for seven years more, and learn how to go hunting on horseback, and to fight, and lots more things, and then, if you have behaved right, when you are twenty-one you will be made a knight!" and Henri's eyes sparkled as he added, "And just think how grand that will be! You will have your own war-horse and armor and spurs and lance and banner and can ride out and go where you please and fight and have all kinds of adventures!" For in those days this was a gentleman's idea of life; it seldom entered their heads to do any real work in the world.

But the poor little seven-year-old was not to be comforted, and crept off to a corner of the courtyard still sobbing, "I want my mother! I want to go home! I don't see why people are other people's vassals! I don't want to be a page! Boo-hoo-hoo!"

And it did seem strange that most of the gently born children of that time had to be brought up in "somebody else's house," as the little page complained. To understand how it came about you must know, to begin with, that the ruler of Normandy was called the duke; that the people were divided into three classes; first, the nobles who lived in castles, and, next to the duke, were of highest rank; second, the people who lived in towns and worked at trades and kept shops and inns for travelers; and the third, or lowest class, who were poor peasants little better than slaves, and who lived in little huts in the country where they had to farm the land for the nobles. Most of the land was owned by these nobles and they, too, were of different degrees of rank, some having stronger castles than others and more fighting men under them. As a great deal of fighting was always going on, it followed that each weaker noble wanted the help and protection of some one more powerful than he was. In order to get his he must become a vassal; that is, he must promise to be loyal to his overlord, to fight for him in return, and in time of war to furnish him men and supplies. In this way it had come about that everybody in Normandy was the vassal of some one else, and it became the custom for children to be sent to their father's overlord that they might be brought up in his home and trained to be loyal to him. The lord and lady of every castle became foster parents to the boys and girls sent to them and did their best to be kind to them and to teach them all they could.

Count Bertram and Lady Gisla took a real interest in the group of squires and pages at Noireat and were much beloved in return. And now, as the little page still sobbed in his corner, Lady Gisla noticed him and a pitying look came into her eyes. "Poor little man!" she murmured to herself. Then turning to two little girls who, hand in hand, had been standing near by watching things, "Blanchette," she said, "go over to little Josef and bring him to me!"

"Yes, mother!" answered the little girl, as she ran off to do Lady Gisla's bidding.

Blanchette was the only child of Count Bertram and Lady Gisla; and though her companion, Marie, was the daughter of one of the Count's vassals, and been sent to Noireat to be trained, Blanchette herself had stayed in her own home because Count Bertram's overlord lived in a castle near the sea where the winters were so sharp and cold that Lady Gisla feared for the health of the little girl who had been delicate since babyhood. Moreover, it was not thought so important to send girls away from home as the boys who must be trained to fight loyally, if need be, for their overlord.

In a moment Blanchette led little Josef, still sobbing, to Lady Gisla, who taking him in her arms hugged and kissed him just as his own mother might have done. "There, there!" she whispered softly to him as she dried his eyes. "Never mind! You must learn to be a little man, and we are all going to help you!" And then she kissed him again and comforted him, till presently the little page was smiling through his tears and ran along quite happily when Blanchette and Marie too him off between them to romp with one of the big brown dogs, who were barking in the general excitement caused by the coming of the heralds.