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Our Little Norman Cousin of Long Ago by  Evaleen Stein

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BLANCHETTE AND MARIE

[28] The next morning Alan, Henri, and the other pages helped to straighten up the hall by picking up form the floor the straw-filled mattresses on which they had slept, and while they were busy with this Lady Gisla took the little girls down to the lowest story of the keep where there was a storehouse for food. Here, with the keys hanging from her girdle, she unlocked bins and closets, giving out to the cooks supplies for the day, while Blanchette and Marie watched all she did.

As they turned to go, "Mother," said Blanchette, peering into a dark passage-way in the wall, "is anybody in the dungeon?"

"I think not now," answered Lady Gisla, as she glanced toward the passage which led to a dreadful cavern-like cell burrowed under the paving-stones of the court.

For while castle folk were always guarding [29] against some one else attacking them, they did not forget that they themselves were quite as apt to make trouble for other people and that they might sometimes bring home prisoners from their many wars and quarrels. So they always provided a dungeon or two in which to keep them. And every one was so used to such things that even if the one at Noireat had held some wretched captive, neither the little girls nor Lady Gisla would have thought anything of it.

As they left the storehouse, "Come, children," she said, "we will go to the weaving-room now."

They followed her up the winding stair to the second story of the keep in which were their sleeping-rooms, and then up still higher to a large loft where a number of the castle women were already hard at work. Some held in their hands spindles and distaffs, little wooden rods on which they were spinning and winding linen and woolen threads; while others, seated at hand looms, were weaving the threads into cloth.

"Oh, mother," said Blanchette, as she stood in front of one of the looms from which hung a small square of linen cloth, "see, I have finished [30] my piece, and now mayn't I begin to work it? Henri has drawn a pattern for me!"

"Yes, child," answered Lady Gisla, smiling at her eager face. "Let me see the drawing. You have done your weaving very well," she added, as she examined the bit of cloth which the little girl had spun and woven herself.

Blanchette hurried to a tall chest of drawers at one side of the room and tugging one of them open, pulled out a piece of parchment on which Henri had drawn a little girl holding a flower in her hand. He hadn't drawn it with a lead pencil, either, for nobody had any; he had used instead a pen cut from the quill of a feather and dipped in home-made ink.

As Lady Gisla looked at it, "Yes," she said, "this will do very nicely for you to learn your stitches on, and Henri has a pretty taste in drawing." She then showed Blanchette how to fasten her square of cloth in an embroidery frame, and with a needle and some colored thread helped her to begin copying the figure of the little girl.

Meantime, Marie have a sigh as she seated herself in front of another look where a small piece of cloth like Blanchette's was waiting to be [31] finished. "Oh, dear," she cried, "I wish mine was ready to begin working, too!"

"Well, Marie," said Lady Gisla gently, "you know you both began at the same time, but you have not worked quite so industriously as Blanchette. But it is almost done, and I think if you try you can easily finish it to-day."

Marie set to weaving with a will, and the little girls were the picture of industry as they bent over their work. They had on blue dresses made much like Lady Gisla's, only of course their skirts were shorter and they wore no girdles and keys. Their hair was arranged in two braids with hung over their shoulders in front. Now and then Lady Gisla looked at them with a smile as they worked so busily they forgot to talk.

All cloth was they woven by hand, and every little girl, even in the castles, was early taught how to spin and weave; and, later on, those of gentle birth learned to embroider. The cloth they wove was needed not only for clothing, but also to hang on the walls of the great stone castles in which so many Normans lived. These castles were very cold in winter; and the woolen tapestries, as they were called, made the lofty halls [32] and sleeping rooms far more comfortable than they would otherwise have been. Lady Gisla was finishing an especially handsome piece; she had woven it herself and on it she was working a hunting scene showing a forest where men on horseback and shaggy dogs were chasing a stag with branching antlers.

Presently, there was a knock on the heavy oaken door and a page entered the room. Bending on one knee before Lady Gisla, he said: "My lady, Mother Margot is in the courtyard with a basket of herbs which she says you asked her to bring."

"Why, yes," answered Lady Gisla, "they are medicine herbs. Bid her come in, and bring her here to the weaving-room."

As the page hastened off, "come, girls," she said, "you may leave your work for awhile, and we will see what Mother Margot has brought."

In a few minutes the page again opened the door and ushered in an old woman who made a courtesy as she entered. She wore a black homespun dress and a white kerchief crossed over her shoulders, and on her head a white cap with a wide fluted border. Over her arm hung a coarse basket made of osiers and in this [33] were a number of bunches of green plants and leaves.

"Good day, Mother Margot," said Lady Gisla kindly. "Have you brought the herbs I wanted?"

"Yes, my lady," answered the old woman, who was one of the peasant folk belonging on Count Bertram's estate. "Here is boneset, and camomile, and bitter-root and tansy," and as she took the green bunches from her basket and laid them on a heavy oaken table nearby, she muttered over the names of each.

Blanchette and Marie had stood by watching with interest as Mother Margot emptied her load, and when she was gone they fell to examining the little bunches of green. "Oh," said Marie, as she took up one cluster "what pretty leaves these are! Though the medicine they'll make will probably taste nasty enough!" And she made a wry face.

"Yes," said Blanchette, laughing, "and here are some whole plants, roots and all! And likely they are worse still!"

"Those leaves you think so pretty, Marie, are from the fever-few herb," said lady Gisla, "and are very good to make medicine for [34] persons ill of fever. And those whole plants, Blanchette, are rosemary and elecampane, and it is the roots that are the best part."

So taking up the herbs one by one, Lady Gisla explained their uses in curing illness and how they must be prepared. Some were to be dried, some boiled and the juice carefully kept, while of still others the leaves and roots must be pounded fine and steeped in various ways.

Blanchette and Marie listened attentively, for they knew that when they grew up they would be expected to know how to attend their families or friends if they fell ill. Doctors were few then and their knowledge of medicine small at best. So most people, and especially those living in the castles perched on lonely crags, had to do the best they could for themselves; and the girls of the family must learn how to prepare and use the healing herbs in the fields and forests about them, and also how to bandage wounds and care for those hurt in battle; for the men did a great deal of fighting about one thing and another.

Lady Gisla was very skillful in all these things and had already taught the little girls a great deal. She now showed them how to sort [35] and arrange the herbs, and it kept them busy till dinner-time.

After dinner, "Lads," said Count Bertram to Alan and Henri, "you, and the rest of the pages, get out your ponies, and Hugh and I will give you a riding-lesson."

"Yes, sir count!" answered the boys delightedly, and "Oh father," cried Blanchette, "mayn't Marie and I go, too?"

"Yes, child," said Count Bertram, "if your mother is willing."

"The children have been working all morning," said Lady Gisla, "and I think a ride will do them good. And then, of course, they must learn to be good riders as well as the boys."

"To be sure!" answered the count. "Run along, girls, and get your capes and bonnets and the boys will bring your ponies."

Presently the merry little party clattered out over the drawbridge and down the winding path to the fields. Count Bertram kept his eye on the girls, giving them man directions how to become graceful and fearless riders. Hugh attended to the pages, who must learn not only to ride with ease and fearlessness, but also to spring to their saddles without touching the [36] stirrups and to jump their ponies over streams and walls. They must learn other outdoor things as well; how to run and leap and swim and shoot with bow and arrow, and all kinds of exercises to make them strong and manly.

When the riding lesson was over and they cantered back to Noireat, "See!" said Marie, looking up the steep bridle path, "I believe that is a minstrel going to the castle!"

"It surely is!" said Blanchette, gazing with Marie at the man climbing on foot the path ahead of them. He wore a dark tunic and a curiously fringed mantle of flame color; on his head was a gay cap and feather, and on one leg his hose was sky-blue and the other deep green. Over his shoulder, hanging by a ribbon, was a musical instrument with a few strings and shaped much like a harp.

"Goody!" cried Marie. "We will have some music this evening!"

At this Alan turned to Henri, for the two were riding just behind the little girls, and "Well, Henri," he said banteringly, "that's a good thing for you."

"Why?" asked Henri.

"Because," said Alan, "I was going to beat [37] you this evening at that draw game of checkers we were to play!"

"I guess no!" retorted Henri. "Anyway, if you did, I can beat you any day at backgammon!" And the two boys fell to discussing their favorite games and kept it up till they found themselves once more in the castle courtyard. Here the minstrel, as the wandering poets and singers of the time were called, had already been welcomed; for the songs of the minstrels were among the favorite entertainments of the time.

After supper it was chilly, and the fire of logs was lighted in the fireplace, and though the smoke curled out into the hall and hung through the air in dim wreaths, nobody minded it when the minstrel stood up and striking the strings of his harp sang song after song, most of them telling some brave story of war or adventure.

Everyone listened with rapt attention, and clapped their hands when he finished. And no wonder people liked to have minstrels come, for the only way they knew about stories was for some one to sing or tell them to them. There were no printed books then; all were carefully written by hand, usually by the monks in the [38] monasteries who often painted and decorated the pages in the most beautiful way, and these books were too few and precious for most people to have. Then they were not stories, anyway, but mostly religious books.

"Mother," whispered Blanchette, as she listened to the minstrel, "do you suppose I can ever learn to play like that?"

"I don't know, dear," answered Lady Gisla, who had taught the children to play a little on musical instruments at the castle. "Perhaps he will stay here a while and give you some lessons."

But when Count Bertram asked him to do so, the minstrel thanked him and "Nay, sir count," he answered, "not now. This is bluebird weather, and I am on the wing!"

He as much as said, though, that when winter came he would like to come back to Noireat. For while the minstrels preferred to wander around through the summer, they were glad enough to find some castle in which they might spend the winter time. And welcome they were, for with their songs they helped pass many a long cold evening; also they could teach such music as they knew to the girls and boys of the castle.


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