Our Little Norman Cousin of Long Ago - Evaleen Stein

Rolf the Ganger

After dinner the two heralds took their leave. Alan and Henri followed them to the gate, and when it was shut they loitered awhile in the small rood under the watch-tower where Master Herve, the gate-keeper, lived. He was an old man, and the boys liked to hear the stories he was always ready to tell.

"Well, lads," he said, as they seated themselves n a bench by the door, " 'tis lucky for you that you will get to see one more tourney before our noble ruler, Duke William, sets sail for Britain, for 'tis likely times will be dull enough with all the good knights following him across the sea!"

"Master Herve," said Henri, "why is Duke William going to fight in Britain?"

"Why, child," answered Master Herve, "the blood of Rolf the Ganger runs in his veins, and every true Northman loves a good ship and a good fight!—especially if there is a good prize at the end of it!"

"Tell us about Rolf the Ganger!" put in Alan; for though the boys had heard the story often before, they always liked to listen to tales of their Northmen forefathers.

Master Herve smiled approvingly, and began: "Rolf, you know, was the great-great-great-grandfather of our Duke William, and was born nearly two hundred years ago on an isle off the coast of Norway. When he grew up he was so big and tall that he scorned to ride any of the little horses they have in Norway, and because he always walked instead people called him Rolf the Ganger, which means Rolf the Walker."

"And afterwhile he was outlawed!" said Henri.

"Yes," said Master Herve, "he was a wild blade, and for some deed he did he was made an outlaw by the King of Norway. But that didn't daunt Rolf the Ganger! He just got together a band of men and some dragon ships, for the men of Norway have always been famous rovers and more at home on sea than on land."

"I wish I could see a dragon ship!" exclaimed Alan longingly. "Do you think there will be some at Dives when Duke William sails for Britain next fall? You know when Count Bertram goes to join him we are to go, too, as far as Dives."

"Well," answered Herve, "the ships now are a good deal the same, only larger, and not so gay and fine looking. Rolf's were long and narrow with a high prow of wood carved like a dragon and gilded and painted in brave colors. And each had a sail of red and blue, and at the top of the mast flew a flag with a big black raven worked on it; there were dozens of long oars, too, and the shields of the warriors all glittering with red and blue and gold hung over the sides of the ships. It must have been a gallant sight to see their sails spread and the great gold dragons gliding over the curling green waves!" Here old Herve's eyes kindled as he went on, "The isle where Rolf was born was cold and bleak; so, when he started off he set his sails for the south and by and by he came to the mouth of the river Seine in the French country. Many of the Northmen sea-rovers had come to the French country before Rolf and fought the people and carried off rich booty."

And here old Herve's eyes flashed again; for though to-day we would call such doings the work of pirates, in the days of our story everybody thought it very fine and brave to get property by fighting other people and taking theirs away.

"So," went on Herve, "when the French fold saw the ships of Rolf the Ganger, they were terribly frightened, and the French Kind, --you remember his name, lads?" asked Herve.

"Yes," laughed the boys, "he was called Charles the Simple!"

"Right!" said Herve, "he was a very silly king, and silliest of all if he thought he could drive out the Northmen if they had once made up their minds to stay. And this they had, for Rolf's men had brought their wives and children with them, and Rolf himself had conquered the French Count of Bayeaus and married his daughter Popa and was quite ready to settle down in our beautiful Norman land, --though it wasn't called Normandy yet."

"Master Herve," interrupted Henri, "didn't Rolf's wife have any other name but Popa? You know that is just a little doll!" (For so the word means in the Norman language.)

"I daresay she did," answered Herve, "but nobody knows what it was. She must have been a pretty little thing, and a great pet to get a nickname like that, and nobody will ever call her anything but Popa, if she was Duke William's great-great-great-grandmother! –Well, as I was saying, Rolf's plan to settle down in the French country, while it suited him exactly, didn't suit Charles the Simple at all; and he got an army together and fought Rolf, but Rolf beat him.

"After this King Charles thought best to try and make friends with the Northmen. So he sent word to Rolf that if he would stop making war on him, and would be his friend and vassal and become a Christian (for the Northmen all worshiped old heathen gods then), he would give him all the land he had over-run, and that Rolf should be the ruler and called Duke of the Northmen, or Normans, as they soon came to be known.

"Rolf decided that he would agree to the King's terms, and in token of his promise knelt down and put his hands between the hands of King Charles and vowed he would be his faithful vassal and friend. But when he was told that at the end of the ceremony it was the custom for a vassal to kiss the foot of the King, Rolf said nothing."

Here Alan and Henri, who had been listening attentively, went off into bursts of laughter, for they knew what was coming next in the story; and old Herve's eyes twinkled as he went on, "Rolf just beckoned to one of his followers, a big fair-haired Northman, to come and do it for him. And the big Northman stepped up to King Charles and seized his foot with such a jerk that Charles tumbled over backward and that was an end to the ceremony. The French folk were afraid to do anything to the bold strangers, so they just picked up Charles the Simple, and Rolf and his followers went off, laughing as hard as they could, to the country Rolf was to rule and which soon came to be called Normandy.

"Rolf was a good duke," went on Herve, "and made Normandy a fairly peaceful and prosperous country. There has been plenty of quarreling and fighting since then," added the old man, "but our Duke William, who is the fifth ruler since Rolf, has got things very well under control and is all the while making Normandy more prosperous and powerful."

"But you haven't told us yet why he is going to fight the British!" said Henri.

"Oh, yes," answered Master Herve, "that is because,—let me see," said he, thinking hard,—"it is because,—Oh, I have it now! The British King, Edward, who died a while ago, had no children to inherit the kingdom, so he had promised it to our Duke William. But when King Edward died, Harold, one of the powerful British nobles, got an army together and had himself made King. So our Duke William is having ships built near the mouth of the river Dives, which flows into the sea, and is getting all his soldiers ready, and in the autumn he will said for Britain and fight for his rights. Nearly all the Norman nobles are going with him and it will be lonesome and quiet enough when our Count Bertram and all the rest are gone!"

Here Master Herve gave a deep sigh, and just at that moment "Boo!"  cried a merry voice, and in danced the two little girls hand in hand.

The old gate-keeper started, and smiled in spite of himself, as Marie, taking his hand, said gaily, "Well, you needn't put on such a long face, Master Herve! I guess we'll  still be here!" and she smiled saucily at the old man who was a great favorite with all the children about the castle.

Alan and Henri jumped up laughing, and "Wait, Marie!" called out the latter, for the girls had already scampered off again.

At this they stopped and waited till the boys came up, for all four were near the same age and great playmates. "We're going to play 'turn the trencher,' " said Blanchette. "You go get one, Alan, and be It  to start!" she coaxed.

"All right!" said Alan good-naturedly, and he ran off to the kitchen and soon came back with the trencher. By this time little Josef and several more pages had joined the group, and Alan started the game which they played exactly as children play it now ; and if you do not know how that is, ask some of them to tell you.