Our Little Norman Cousin of Long Ago - Evaleen Stein

On the Way to Dives

It was late in August, and on almost every road in Normandy one might have seen soldiers making their way to the sea-coast town of Dives to join the forces of Duke William for the invasion of Britain.

At the castle of Noireat all was ready for Count Bertram's going. Several days before, a number of knights, who were his vassals, had come with their followers to go with him, and the castle had been overflowing with people. At last, when the morning came to start, there was a great running to and fro; squires and pages bustled about harnessing the horses, putting on their rosettes and plumes, and then they helped their masters buckle on their armor and spurs. Count Bertram's had been freshly polished, and Lady Gisla had made for him a new banner of blue silk on which was worked a red two-legged dragon like that painted on his shield.

As the little party said good-by, "Oh, father," cried Blanchette, clinging to him with tearful eyes, "don't get hurt! Promise you will come back safe and sound!"

And Count Bertram patted her head and kissing her and Lady Gisla declared that he would come home just as soon as they had helped Duke William conquer Britain.

Then all mounted their horses, Count Bertram and Hugh and the other knights riding in front, and after them the squires, who carried such baggage as was needful, while last of all came Alan and Henri, who were to go along as far as Dives, ready always to wait upon the others or do errands at their bidding.

Master Herve, with trembling hands, opened the castle gate, and off they rode, their armor gleaming and their banners fluttering in the summer sunlight.

As the old man watched them go he shook his head sadly, and "Well, well," he muttered to himself, "old Herve has seen the day when he didn't have to stay behind and sit on his bench from morning till night! Many's the time I've followed Count Bertram's father to the field!" And he blinked his eyes hard as he shut the great gate.

As for Lady Gisla and the little girls, they climbed to the top of the very highest tower in the castle and there they watched the party of riders as they wound down the cliff and out upon the road, gazing until they could see no more.

Meantime Count Bertram and the others rode along on their way to the town of Falaise where they were to pass the night. Alan and Henri, who had never been far from home, looked about with bright eyes. Here and there by the wayside were the little huts of peasant folks who had to plow and sow the fields and do all the hard work to raise food for their overlords, but who never could own any land themselves or even move away from the wretched places where they lived. The huts were rudely built of clay or wood, and in their doorways little children in bare feet and coarse homespun dresses stood staring at the party riding by. In the fields their brothers, a little older, were working with bent backs beside their fathers, and inside the huts their sisters were helping the mothers weave the coarse cloth for the family clothes, or else were stirring the pots of cabbage soup which was the most any of them had to eat.

"Dear me!" said Alan, "I'm glad I don't have to live like those people!"

"Yes," agreed Henri, "it must be terribly dreary. I guess Father Herluin is right when he says we ought to be glad to learn our lessons and know something, for if we were peasant children we wouldn't have a chance to find out anything! And they have to work all the time just as hard as they can, and never have nice things to eat or wear or any fun like we do, poor things!"

"Look at those washer-women!" said Alan, glancing with a smile toward a group of women kneeling at he bank of a little stream they were about to cross. "When Count Bertram and the others came along to ford the water the women stated so hard at them that some of the washing is floating off!"

And, sure enough, bobbing up and down with the current, sailed some pieces of linen from the pile of clothes which the women were washing in the stream, pounding them with stones and sousing them up and down just as they do to this day in Normandy.

When the two boys looked back after crossing the ford, the women were wading out with long sticks and pulling back the runaway garments.

Sometimes they passed orchards of apples and pears, and "Oh!" cried Alan, as he sniffed the ripe fruit which the peasants were gathering, "don't it smell good! I wouldn't so much mind being one of those peasants!"

"Yes, you would!" answered Henri, "for you wouldn't dare eat all the apples and pears you wanted! You would have to make most of them into cider for your overlord!"

Now and then, perched on some steep hill, the towers of a tall castle would rise against the sky; and perhaps at the foot of the hill would nestle a little village with gray houses like the village of Noireat.

At mid-day they all stopped in a grassy woodland and rested the horses and ate some of the food they carried with them.

They rode all afternoon, the road growing steeper and more broken till, toward sunset, it wound down into a picturesque ravine. On either side rose huge rocky crags, and "Look!" cried Henri, gazing up at a lordly castle which crowned one of these. "I wonder what place that is?"

"That is Falaise castle," said one of the squires, who was riding just ahead of Henri and heard his question.

The lad looked with eager interest at the great strong walls and lofty tower looming black against the sunset sky. "Falaise!" he repeated. "Why, then it must be where Duke William was born, and where he rode so fast that night his fool, Goelet, woke him up and warned him to fly!"

"To be sure," said the squire, smiling at Henri's eagerness, "it's the very place. I know this part of the country, for some of my kinsmen live near here. That castle has belonged to the dukes of Normandy for I don't know how many years, but ever and ever so long. And down in the ravine is the town of Falaise; we'll come to it presently. The dukes have always been fond of Falaise, and often come there, though of course they have to live most of the time in the city Rouen where their palace is."

As the lads listened they were all the while riding along, and soon they came to the old town which, as the squire had said, lay for the most part in the ravine. There was a strong wall around it, and when they entered the gate they found themselves in a narrow, crooked street with houses close together on either side. Most of them were built of wood with great timbers showing on the outside, and all had peaked roofs and many gables. Here and there were dark little shops where cloth weavers and leather and metal workers displayed their wares. Everything, of course, was made by hand, for there were no machines for doing things in those days.

Farther along the crooked street they passed the market house, which was open at all sides, only a heavy timber roof upheld by square wooden pillars. Within were many stalls where people sold meat and vegetables, cheese and apples and cider, for Normandy has always been a great place for apples.

As they rode past "I hope they have bought plenty here for the inn where we are to stay tonight," said Henri, "for I am dreadfully hungry!"

"So am I!" replied Alan, for the all day's ride had sharpened their appetites. In a few minutes they came to the inn, a good-sized wooden house built around a courtyard, which they entered through a broad gateway, and soon the landlord was greeting them all, and his servants were leading the knights' horses to stalls while the squires and pages took care of their own.

When they went in for supper the count and his friends were served in a room by themselves, while the others took their luck at the long table spread in the main part of the inn. The air was thick with smoke from a great fireplace where meat was roasting on a spit and the landlord's wife and her maids were making omelettes in long-handled frying pans.

Alan and Henri looked curiously at the other travelers around them as they took their places with a wooden trencher between them. Presently a boy near their own age brought them some meat.

"How do you do?" said Alan, who always liked to make friends with people.

The boy, who had a bright pleasant face, with a friendly look replied to Alan's greeting and then went off to serve some one else. But after supper he came over to the bench where the two pages were sitting, and began to talk to them and to ask them where they came from. When they had answered his questions, they began to ask some themselves.

"What is you name?" Have you always lived in Falaise?" inquired Alan. "And what do the boys and girls in town do? Do you go hunting, or to tournaments, or learn to ride or fight? Though I don't quite see how you can in town!"

"My name is Gilles," answered the boy, "and I have always lived here. This is my father's inn, and I help with the work. I can do lots of things, too! I run errands and help wait on the table and I can take care of the horses, and most anything!" he added with an air of pride.

"But what do you do for amusement?! Persisted Alan.

"Oh," said Gilles, "we play games, ball and hide and seek, and spin tops and sometimes a puppet show comes to town and we go to that."

"Yes," said Henri, "we do those things at home. I wonder if your puppet shows are like the ones that come to our castle? Last winter a fine one came! The man had a box fixed up like a little stage and a lot of little dolls dressed like different people, and he moved them around with his fingers and pretended to talk for them."

"Yes," put in Alan, "and a couple of them were dressed like knights on horseback and had a regular fight!"

"I saw that one!" said Gilles, with a wise air. "And ever so many others come to Falaise."

"Did you ever go to a tournament?" asked Henri.

"No," answered Gilles vaguely, "I don't know what that is. But I've been lots of times to the Guibray fair!" he added, his eyes brightening.

It was now the other boys' turn to ask, "What is the Guibray fair?"

"Oh," said Gilles, "it's a big fair the Duke William stated in Guibray, a little place up on the hill close to Falaise. There is a fine church there and a shrine with a Madonna that works miracles, and such hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims go there to pray that Duke William thought it would be a fine thing for the Guibray folks to have a fair; so he gave them permission to have one every summer in August, because that's when most of the pilgrims come. It's too bad you didn't get here sooner, for it's been over only about two weeks!"

"What do they do there?" asked Alan.

"Well," answered Gilles, "they have swings, and games, and mistrels and jugglers, and shooting with bows and arrows, and then there are all kinds of things to buy, and more horses and cows than you ever saw!" finished the boy, with round eyes.

Alan and Henri looked rather envious as they heard of the wonders of the Gulbray fair. And, Strangely enough, though thus started nearly a thousand years ago, to this day it is still held every August, just as Gilles described it.

As the boys were talking, a little girl went through the room carrying a doll and a gray kitten. "Is that your sister?" asked Henri of Gilles.

"Yes," answered the lad, "and I have another older one and two brothers."

"What does your sister do? Does she help around the house, too?" asked Henri, for the boys were inquisitive and interested in what kind of lives were led by the boys and girls in town.

"Yes," answered Gilles, "and she is learning to spin and weave, and my older sister can make omelettes and roast meat as well as mother. She don't like to very well, though; she wants to learn to embroider and make things to hang on the wall like some of the rich people in town have. You just ought to see the grand houses some of the rich folks here have! They have chairs that are carved, and wonderful worked cloth hanging on the walls, and some have tiles on their floors, and two of them have kind of holes built in the wall by the fireplace for the smoke to go out! I think they are called chimneys; Duke William's castle has one of them!"

Alan and Henri looked rather blank as they heard of the holes for smoke, which seemed to them quite a fine idea; though we would have laughed at the chimneys Gilles told of, which were really very poor affairs and led the smoke, such of it as went into them, out at the side, not the top of the house.

The two pages, however, said nothing about having none at Noireat, and Alan declared with a lordly air, "Well, I guess Count Bertram has a chair all carved with dragons, and Lady Gisla can embroider tapestries as good as anybody!"

"Where do you go to church?" asked Gilles.

"Why, in the chapel of the castle," answered Henri.

"Well," said Gilles, determined to find something better than castle had, "I don't believe it's so big as the church of Saint Gervaise here in Falaise! And our church has glass  in the windows!"

Here the boys' talk was interrupted by the loud ringing of a bell.

"What's that?" asked Alan.

"That's the bell of Saint Gervaise church now!" said Gilles. "It's ringing for curfew!"

"What is curfew?" asked Henri.

"Why," said Gilles in surprise, "don't you know what curfew is? I thought everybody  knew that!  We have to cover up our fire with ashes and put out our candles when that bell rings. Duke William ordered it, and father says it's to make people careful that their houses don't burn down at night when everybody's asleep, and that it's to make folks go to bed early, too, and keep out of mischief."

"Well, I guess it's meant more for you town people," said Alan. "There are more of you to get into mischief! And your wooden houses would burn down quicker than stone castles, too." But Gilles had already run to help his father heap ashes over the glowing logs still smoldering in the fireplace, and all the travelers in the room began to find places on the floor or benches where they might pass the night. Alan and Henri and the squires of Count Bertram's party stretched themselves out wherever they could, and soon everybody was asleep.