In the Days of William the Conqueror - E. M. Tappan

Robert the Pilgrim

"I am the grandson of Richard the Fearless as well as he, and I will never do homage to my proud cousin." So said Alain of Brittany, and again the little boy saw his father mount the great war-horse, and ride swiftly down the hill. He was followed by a troop of fighters, for there were plenty of men who would do anything for money, and Robert had "sous of Rouen" enough to hire as large an army as he chose.

When his little son saw the preparations, he straightway asserted his right to go with the company.

"I am a soldier, too," he said, "and you let the other soldiers go. I have a sword and a coat of mail, and I can give the commands—you know I can. I've taken a castle, too. You know you had to surrender. Won't you let me go?"

"A soldier must ride a horse," said the duke, "and you can only ride a pony. The next time I go out to fight, then, if you are big enough to ride a horse, perhaps I will take you with me.—I believe the youngster would be as brave as "any old fighter," he muttered to himself proudly.

Alain, too, had summoned his vassals—men of high rank, brave warriors with a brave leader—and yet, when Robert's men dashed upon them, suddenly rushing up from the glen where they had been hidden, they fled for their lives. The enemy pursued, hunted them down like wolves, killed horse and rider without mercy, until more than half the noble army had been slain. There was one more expedition against Alain—an angry, pitiless campaign. Would Alain submit, or did he prefer, first to have his land devastated, and then to submit? Alain yielded, and did homage. Then he turned sullenly to leave the presence of the duke, but Robert called him back.

"Alain, my cousin," said he, "I have fought you as fiercely as I know how to fight, for I was holding to what I believe is my lawful due. Do you blame me for that?"

"Every man has a right to his own," said Alain evasively; but the duke had more to say.

"I thought it was mine. You thought it was yours. We fought it out fairly and squarely, and I have won. Do you bear malice for the result of an honest fight?"

No," said Alain hesitatingly.

"I have made my own way," said the duke. "I have never sought aid or favor or advice from any man. This is the first time that I have asked a man for his friendship, but now I want a friend, not a conquered enemy. Will you give me your hand and swear to be, not my vassal, but my friend?" Alain turned slowly toward the duke. Then he glanced at his cousin's face. There was an appealing look that no one had ever seen before on the countenance of the proud noble. The fiery, warm-hearted Alain melted in an instant. He laid his hand in that of the duke, and said:—

"I will be your friend, and whatever you ask in the name of our friendship, that will I do."

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart," said Robert; "and the time may come when I shall ask the greatest favor that one man could ask of another in this the duchy of Normandy, and I shall trust you as never before did one man trust another." Then in a moment, Robert was the same proud, headstrong, self-sufficient man that he had always been, and for a while Alain almost fancied that those few minutes had been a dream.

It was but a short time after this that Robert called together the earls and barons and bishops and abbots of his duchy, every man of mark among those who paid him homage. In their robes of state they came to the appointed place, each one followed by a company of armed men. It was a brilliant assemblage. There was the Archbishop of Rouen, the uncle with whom Robert had fought, and whom he had afterward made chief of his council, and there was his cousin, Alain of Brittany.

No one could even guess why they had been summoned. They knew of no question great enough to call out the whole ducal council. Not one of them had the least suspicion of what was to come, nor would they have known any better even if they had heard the duke's last command to a chamberlain just before he entered the council room. It was this:—

"'When you hear me strike three times with the hilt of my sword, bring in my son; and see to it that he is dressed in the richest attire that the castle will furnish." Then the duke entered the room where the whole dazzling company awaited his presence. After the usual forms of opening a council of state had been completed, then, without word of introduction, Robert expressed his will.

"It is well to be duke of a wide realm," said he, "but one must care for the good of his soul. I have sinned, and I must do penance, or else suffer forever and ever the punishment due to my misdeeds."

"He is going to resign the kingdom," thought the councillors, and more than one of them formed in a moment a scheme to secure the dukedom for himself. But Robert went on:—

"There is one way by which a man may wipe away even the darkest crime, and that way will I take. This is what I will do. Bare-headed, bare-footed, in the guise of a pilgrim, and with staff in hand, I will go to Jerusalem; and when once my feet have trodden on the holy ground, then shall I be freed from my sins. Then will I return and rule my duchy—and woe to him who has been an unfaithful vassal. I shall find means to make him regret his falseness," said the duke haughtily, for humility was not exactly his most prominent virtue. Then arose one of his relatives.

"Duke Robert, my cousin," said he, "I am most heartily sorry that such a thought has entered your mind. I can only guess whom we have to thank for this," and he glanced toward the Archbishop of Rouen, "but I am safe in saying that if any one has had a hope of gain for himself in persuading—"

"My thoughts are my own," said the duke proudly. "If there is any one here who can say that he had word or whisper of my plan before this day, let him speak." There was silence for a moment, then another councillor arose.

"A lordless land is open to every foe," he said. "Normandy is strong, but we have on every side territories that are envious of her wealth, of her power, of her alliance with King Henry of France. We have brave leaders, and we can call out brave soldiers, but what is all our bravery without a commander who holds his place by a right that none can dispute? It is well to cleanse one's self from sin, but shall our land fall into revolt and ruin that it may be done so hastily? Duke Robert, you are a young man, let the pilgrimage wait. In years to come, if you would make a pilgrimage, you can leave us in quiet fealty to a rightful ruler. Go now, and who is there to whom we can pay our homage? Who will stand with unquestionable right at the head of this realm?"

Robert stood silent for a moment, gazing at the face of one and then of another. Through the minds of at least three of those present flashed the thought: "I am closely akin. I have the right to rule in his place—and I will."

Silently the duke looked at them. Then, still without a word, he unsheathed his sword and beat with the hilt sharply three times upon the heavy table before him. What did it mean? It was mysterious, and in those days whatever was a mystery was expected to be of satanic origin. What evil spirits might come forth at the magic call? Those brave fighters gazed into Robert's face as if spellbound. They actually feared. He was called "Robert the Devil." Would he make good his name?

The curtain was drawn aside, and there stepped forward into the council room a handsome boy of seven years. He was dressed in a tunic of the richest, softest silk, falling to the knees. It was of a deep blue, and all around its lower edge and about the opening at the neck there was a wide border of elaborate silken embroidery, with a pearl gleaming here and there among the brilliant colors. No thought of fear had the child. He stood for a moment looking about the room. Then when he saw the duke, he went quietly to him and said:—

"Father, the chamberlain said that you wanted me."

"I do, and the man here that does not want you is an unfaithful vassal, and on him will I wreak my vengeance." He held the boy up in his arms and kissed him before them all. Then he said:—

"If any one among you dares to say that I am leaving you without a head, let him come forth. This child is my son. That he is the offspring of a peasant mother matters naught to you. Look at him; will he not be a fit man to represent you at court, to lead you in battle, and to render you justice? He is little, but he will grow. He is beautiful, gallant, and brave. I name him as my heir, and I here give him possession of the duchy of Normandy. From this moment he is your liege lord. Refuse to acknowledge him, if you wish to meet the penalty that is inflicted upon a faithless vassal."

The whole assemblage was so taken by surprise that not a word was spoken. The duke waited for a moment, then he turned to Alain of Brittany.

"Alain of Brittany, my cousin, my friend," he said significantly, "to you I intrust my son's possessions. I appoint you governor of Normandy until I return; and if I do not return, then are you governor until my boy is of age to rule his own domain. Do you accept the trust?"

"I do," said Alain gravely.

"Is there any one here who has aught of objection to bring forward?" asked the duke. He would have been a bold man who dared to brave the will of "Robert the Devil" to his face, and not a word was said. There was another reason for the silence. Alain was the strongest of the three that had had some hope of the kingdom, and his voice was hushed by the dignity offered him as governor of Normandy for, it might be, many years; and, moreover, although the charge of the interests of a tanner's grandchild and the maintenance of his rights would be at best no easy and no welcome task, he felt himself in honor bound to grant, for the sake of his promised friendship, what the duke had asked of him.

As for the others, they knew well that the first claim set forth by any one of them would be the signal for determined opposition on the part of the rest. There had been no opportunity to gain any man's support by bribes or promises or threats. No man present knew what allies he could count upon. The result of it was that one by one the bishops, archbishops, barons, and all the haughty company of nobles meekly folded their hands, hardened by the grasp of the sword and browned by the sun of many battlefields, and laid them, within the hands of the tanner's grandchild, and promised to be faithful to him as their feudal chief.

During the long, tiresome ceremonial the little boy was perfectly composed. He had more than once seen a vassal do homage to his father, and he felt a manly pride in behaving just as he had seen his father behave on similar occasions. There was something more. There had been little slights and rebuffs on the part of the nobles, and there had been words whose meaning he did not know, but with a child's quick sensitiveness he had felt that the nobles were not his friends, and it is no wonder that he had an instinctive pleasure in seeing them bow down before him. He might well sit quietly and receive with a certain childish dignity their oaths of fealty.

"If I were the Duke of Normandy, I would not leave a boy like that so that every one who wanted the dukedom might strike a blow at him," said one noble, as they went out from the council chamber.

"What can he do?" said another. "Who knows what sins Robert the Devil may have to answer for? It may be no wonder that he wants to go on a pilgrimage."

"No one would think that the mother of that boy was a peasant," said the first.

"The duke never seems to think of it, either. The child is his, and that is enough in his mind. He does not seem to remember that the blood of the tanner's daughter flows in the veins of the boy," said the other.

It is enough to make one think he is right to look at that child. I don't believe there is another boy in Normandy as brave and as handsome as he. They say it is really a pretty sight to watch him train that little company of youngsters. I suppose you heard about his leading them up to his father's castle and calling on the duke to surrender?"

"No, but I did hear that when he was playing one day on the bank of the Ante below the castle, a much larger boy than he came up behind him and whispered, 'This is where your father first met Arletta.' The little fellow understood somehow that it was an insult to his mother, and they say that the small child whirled around, and in the wink of an eye the other boy was in the water, for the blow was so sudden that he had no idea what was coming. Then the seven-year-old baby took his sister by the hand and walked off, never looking over his shoulder, and with his head high up in the air, just exactly as the duke carries his."

"It's a fine thing to be governor of Normandy," said the first, after a moment's pause; "but for all that, I don't envy Alain of Brittany."

"No one but Duke Robert would have thought of making him the child's guardian, a man whom he had just pursued almost to the death."

"What will you wager that he will be faithful?"

"I'll wager my castle that he will have a hard time of it if Duke Robert isn't at home within a year, and that either the child or Alain will suddenly die. Did you see the face of William of Montgomery? I did, and if he does not mean mischief, I am no prophet."

"The duke has been generous with him."

"What is, hold fast; what is to come, be grateful for; what is past, forget. That's William's way of doing it."

The feudal system was a great chain. Each one of those who had sworn to be true to the child William had received promises of fealty from men who paid him dues and were dependent upon him for protection. Now William, in his turn, must pay his homage to the king.

Robert had made most careful provision for Arletta, and as the grand procession swept away from Falaise one bright morning, she watched it, with her little daughter Adelaide, from a window that was hung with the richest draperies. Grieving to lose her son, she was nevertheless greatly comforted by the thought that it was her son for whose sake all this splendid cavalcade was marching to Paris. Moreover, this separation was to her almost a mark of nobility, for while peasant mothers might keep their boys, the sons of nobles were taken from them at the age of seven and put under the care of men, either at home or in some friendly castle, that they might the sooner learn the duties of knighthood.

King Henry was glad of the opportunity to appear grateful to Duke Robert for the assistance that he had rendered in his time of need, and the special court which he held to receive the Normans was most magnificent. The king sat on his royal throne. His velvet mantle glittered with gold and was loaded with ermine. Upon his head rested his jewelled crown. Barons, bishops, archbishops, and officers of state were around him, each in his most gorgeous array.

When the ducal party appeared, the dazzling company separated to the right and to the left, leaving a broad aisle from the entrance up the long hall to the foot of the throne. Slowly the duke and his men walked between the glittering lines, the duke leading his child. The boy's tunic was of a deep crimson velvet, the richest that Italian skill could produce, but with no touch of ornament. Beside him was the duke, bare-footed, bare-headed, and wearing the coarse gray cloak that marked him as one who would make the great pilgrimage. His haughty bearing, not to be disguised even by the garb of the pilgrim, together with the beauty and animation of the boy, held every eye.

They knelt at the foot of the throne, and King Henry gave Robert a most gracious welcome. The duke then formally presented William as his son and heir, and said to the king:—

"King Henry, my liege, now that I am on the point of departing on a holy pilgrimage for the good of my soul and the forgiveness of my sins, I have brought to you my son, to whom I have given my duchy, and I ask that you will graciously receive his promise of fealty." Then said the king:—

"I will receive it, and I will do all that can fall to the share of him who is as faithful to his vassal as he would have the vassal be to his lord." Then the little boy knelt again before the throne. He folded his hands and laid them within the hands of the king. Phrase by phrase he repeated after his father:—

"I do now swear that from this day forth I will be your man, that I will serve you with life and limb and worldly honor, and that I will keep my faith and be loyal to you forever." Then the king said:—

"I do now accept you as my true and honest vassal. I will protect your person and your estate; and all things that a lord should perform for his faithful vassal, those will I do for you." The king then kissed the boy and gave him a green twig and a bit of turf, for in these feudal relations people had a theory that all the land belonged to the king, and that in return for the promised service of the vassal, he would allow him to make use of a certain amount of it; and it was this privilege which was signified by the presentation of the twig and the turf.

Now things became less formal. Cupfuls of silver coins were scattered among the poor people, and the king and all the nobles partook of a great feast. King Henry was most cordial to the duke, and especially attentive to his little new vassal. He promised that the boy should have a home at his own court, and there be trained in all such exercises of chivalry as were fitting to be taught to the future ruler of a great duchy like Normandy.

"You must grow fast, my little man," said one of the French nobles to William, "for there isn't a handsomer knight in King Henry's court than you will be."

"Will the king let me be a knight very soon?" asked the child eagerly. "I'm a pretty big boy now."

"Judging from the way he behaves, he will do whatever you wish," said the noble, with a meaning glance at another who stood near him.

"What does that look signify?" asked the other, with a little smile, as the boy wandered away to look at the pictures on the tapestry.

"Need it signify anything?" asked the first.

"Even looks are not without meaning when one dwells in a royal palace," said the other. "Do you mean that King Henry will not always be as devoted to the interests of his young vassal as he seems to-day?"

"Who shall say?" answered the first, with a shrug of the shoulders. "Normandy is a fair country. It joins France; there would be no opposition on this side."

"Do you not incline to think that Alain of Brittany will keep faith with Robert?"

"Who knows?" said the first, with another shrug; "but even if he does, there is William of Montgomery and the Archbishop of Rouen. More than one man, more than two, more than three, would be willing to accept the fertile lands and the flourishing manufactories of Normandy. Who knows what will happen?"

"Who knows?" said his companion.