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In the Days of William the Conqueror by  Eva March Tappan

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THE BANQUET AT ROUEN

[18]

G
IVE a child a knife and its first thought is to cut. So it was with the count. Here he was in a castle that ought to be his. Its walls were solid, its keep was massy. Men who were eager to fight under his banner were pressing upon him. What should hinder him from holding fast to his own?

"I wish Ermenoldus was here," he thought. Then his mind wandered back to the last time that he had seen the wizard, as he called him, and more than half in earnest.

"We were talking about the castle and its thick walls and the great precipice below it," he thought, "and then he disappeared and left me the mysterious message that I could read only in the glow of the fire." Ever since the strange guest had departed, Robert had carried the little scroll in his bosom. He drew it out and read it anew. Another interpretation flashed upon him.

[19] "The castle of Falaise is that which I 'would have,' " he said aloud. " 'Let him see to it that he hold it fast.' That will I do. Brother or demon, duke or king, let them come on. Here is my castle—my  castle—and here are bold fighters, and up there in the little room in the thickness of the wall is as beautiful a lady to fight for as ever sat on a royal throne. Here I am and here will I remain." In an hour the castle was in commotion. There was a great polishing of shields and spears. Armor that had grown rusty in the time of quiet, so unusual in those stormy days, was rubbed and strengthened and its breaks repaired. The forges blazed night and day. War-horses were to be shod. Arrowheads were to be made. Swords were to be sharpened to a keen edge that would cut through head and helmet at a blow. Axes were ground, and the helve of each was carefully tested, for on its strength might depend a fighter's chance of life or the defence of the castle gate.

In the midst of all the eager preparations, a man appeared at the gate. He was muddy. His shoes were in fragments, and his clothes were torn to rags by the thick briers through [20] which he had forced his way; but when he spoke, men listened as if their lives hung upon his words. The words were few, they were only these:—

"Duke Richard and a great force are coming through the forest at the other side of the town."

Robert's first thought was of the security of the fair bride whom he had taken from the home of her father. In general, the keep of a castle was the safest place in a siege, but in this instance, when a duke was trying to regain possession of his own, then, however much he might be forced to injure the castle, he would do no needless damage to the peasants living on his land. The best place for Arletta was in her father's house, and there she was carried with as much of form and ceremony as the hasty departure would permit.

Hardly had the castle gate been closed upon the return of the men who had acted as her escort, when the glitter of the spears of Richard's soldiers was seen in the distance. Nearer and nearer they came. First rode the standard-bearer and the guards of the standard. Then came the duke himself, with flashing helmet and shield and coat [21] of mail, his armorial bearings blazoned on even the trappings of his horse. The coat of mail was in one piece, and was shaped like a tunic, falling to the knees, and protecting his arms down to the wrists. His legs were guarded by wide thongs of leather crossed and recrossed. To the broad belt that fell across his shoulder hung a dirk and a short, stout sword. His shield was oblong, rounded at the top and narrowing to a point at the bottom. That there should be no little crevice where an unfriendly lance might enter, his coat of mail had a kind of hood, also of mail, that covered the back of his head to the helmet, and shielded his cheeks. He carried a lance, and from its head waved the gonfalon, or pennant, around which his men were to rally at the call of their lord.

The knights who accompanied Richard were armed and equipped in much the same way, save that their accoutrements were less rich, and not always as complete. Around each knight were grouped his own vassals, whom he was required to arm and mount and lead in the service of the duke.

No coat of mail had the men of low degree. That belonged to the knights, and every one knew [22] that a man of humble birth could never be worthy of being made a knight. They were allowed to wear a stuffed tunic that afforded some little protection, and under it they might have a sort of breastplate of leather. They carried a round shield. Their weapons were the lance, the battle-axe, the bow, the sling, even clubs and flails and maces, and staves with prongs. They were permitted to carry a sword, but it must be long and slender—not short and thick like that of the nobles. Together with these vassals were many of the same eager, restless adventurers that had entered the service of Robert.

Up the winding road came the troops of Richard, closer and closer to the castle. Robert's men stood on the wall hurling down great stones, firing deadly arrows, and thrusting back with their long lances the foremost men in the ranks of the duke. The contest was the more bitter in that the foes were brothers. Wild shouts arose from both sides—of rage from one and defiance from the other. Richard's arbalests, unwieldy machines for hurling great stones, drove Robert's men down from the walls; or rather their dead bodies were dragged down by their fellow-fighters to make room for [23] other men. The outer walls were captured, and there was a pause.

Robert's men were few, and there was no way to make good his losses; while Richard's followers had been more in number at first, and additions had been continually coming up. The walls of the donjon were thick and heavy, but the art of using stone as a material for castle-building was in its infancy, and there were weaknesses in the structure of which a determined assailant might take advantage. After the moment's rest, Richard's men were rousing themselves for a final attack, and this, Robert knew, could hardly fail to be successful. He stood with grim, set face, and around him gathered his fighters, watching him, and ready to obey the least indication of his wishes.

"It is of no use. The castle must yield," said Robert gloomily.

"True, my lord," said a grave voice behind him.

"Ermenoldus! wizard that you are, give me your aid. How came you here?"

"I wish I was a wizard, my lord," said Ermenoldus sadly. "I would run the risk of the flame [24] and the fagot if I could help you, for I have done you nothing but harm when I meant to work you good."

"But how came you here?"

"By no wizardry, my lord. There is a tiny crevice under a jutting rock which is hidden by bushes. A slender man like me can easily make his way up the crack, for it is scarcely more than that. A sudden twist, a writhing through a little gap between the foundation rocks, and I am in your fortress. It was as well that your servants should think it witchcraft. Unrevealed knowledge is unshared power."

'"Is there no hope, Ermenoldus?"

"None, my lord. To save yourself from death—no, perhaps not death, that is easy—but from a life in the lowest depths of the castle dungeon, you must yield. Take down your standard. Put up the white flag and sue for peace. Make what terms you can, but yield."

The white flag was put up, and in the gloomy keep of the castle, red and slippery with the blood of slaughtered men, the two brothers debated again the question of the heritage—Richard calmly, as with the manner of a man who did but [25] claim his own; Robert gloomily, but with a certain ready meekness that might have made those who knew him best question whether all his thoughts were made clear by his words. The end of the discussion was this: Robert might have the district of the Hiesmois, and hold it free from his brother's interference, but the castle of Falaise must still belong to Richard.

All was quiet and concord. The soldiers marched to Richard's capital, Rouen, the two brothers riding together at the head of their men. A great banquet was made ready in the castle—a strange mixture of luxury and discomfort. The chairs of that day were heavy and clumsy. At family dinners people sat on stools, but at a ceremonious feast like this benches were used, and the guests huddled together as best they could. There were nutcrackers, but there were no forks. Warriors noted for their bravery were given bulls' horns bound with rings of silver or of gold for their drinking cups, and these were filled over and over again with beer or wine. There were vegetables of many kinds, fish of all varieties, rabbits, fowl, venison, and lamb. Pork appeared in the shape of ham, sausages, black pudding, and roast. [26] It was the most common meat, though it was often eaten with a little fear lest it should produce leprosy.

For dessert there were baked fruits and nuts of all the kinds that could be obtained, cheese, red and white sugar-plums, and on a raised platform in the middle of the table were jellies, elaborately fashioned in the shape of a swan, heron, bittern, or peacock. The real peacock was the dish of honor, and was called the "food for the brave." It was stuffed and roasted. Its beak was gilded with gold, and sometimes its whole body was covered with silver gilt. The bird was brought in with a waving of banners, and a flourish of trumpets like that which announced the coming of some great dignitary.

The feast was elaborate, but it was served with no attempt at any special order. After orange preserves came chickens, and after lamb sausages came a delicate pie made of larks. Nuts were quite likely to appear before ham, and sweet jellies before soup.

Such a banquet as this required a kitchen of generous dimensions, and so it was that the kitchen of a noble must have great spits on which [27] many joints of different kinds could be roasted, together with whole sheep and venison and long rows of poultry. There must be many utensils, and in the houses of men of highest rank there was a special servant to take care of the copper dishes, kettles, saucepans, and caldrons, and to see to it that they were safe and bright and shining.

The banquet hall was lighted by hanging lamps, and lamps on standards, and countless wax candles set in chandeliers and in candlesticks. The walls were hung with finely woven tapestries. Within the hall there was a barbaric sort of luxury, but in the town in which the hall of feasting stood, the pigs were still running wild in the streets.

When men began to weary of feasting, jugglers and minstrels came in to amuse them. The minstrels sang to the music of a sort of double-barrelled flute, or recited long poems of war or adventure in doggerel rhymes. Lavish gifts were presented to them, and they went away rejoicing in generous sums of money, or clothing of scarlet or violet cloth, or in fur robes or jewels or noble horses.

The jugglers were treated equally well, and [28] perhaps the amusements which they provided were even more generally appreciated by the guests. These jugglers performed all sorts of sleight-of-hand tricks. They boxed and they wrestled and they danced. They threw up lances and caught them by the point, or they spun naked swords over their heads and caught the flashing weapons as they fell. Then, too, they led about bears and monkeys and dogs that fought or danced together. The dogs would walk about on their hind legs, the monkeys would ride horseback, while the bears pretended to be dead and the goats played on the harp.

Hour after hour the feasting and the amusements and the rejoicing continued. Every one drank the health of every one else. Especially friendly and harmonious did the two brothers appear, who had so recently fought together as the deadliest of foes. In many a golden-bound horn of wine they pledged each other. At last the time came when men could feast no more. The words of farewell were said, and the banquet was over. Scarcely had the festival lights been extinguished when the bells began to toll for the sudden death of Richard. Robert re- [29] turned to Falaise. The castle was his, and he was Duke of Normandy.

The new duke began his reign by a generosity that made his followers rejoice.

"He's the duke for me," said one of them jubilantly. "Duke Richard gave me one suit a year, and Duke Robert will give me two."

"Yes," said a second retainer, "when Arcy showed him his sword all dinted and bent in the fight and asked for another, he gave him a sword and a new coat of mail and a fine new horse and a helmet."

"Was that what killed Arcy? Did he die of joy?"

"That is what some one said, but I think he ate too much at the feast, and they didn't bleed him soon enough."

"Perhaps he drank of the wrong cup by mistake," said another, with a significant look.

"I don't quarrel with any duke that doubles my salary," said the first. "He is my friend who shows himself a friend, and I'll stand by Robert the Magnificent. Richard died, to be sure; but then he might have been killed in the battle so it would have been all the same now."

[30] It mattered little to Robert who was pleased and who was displeased at his accession. He was duke, and he meant to rule, and that was enough. Falaise pleased him. The hunting was good, the castle was the strongest in his domain; it was the place for which he had fought, and now that it was in his hands, he meant to keep it. Moreover, in the home of a man who had once been a tanner, there was the fairest lady in the duchy. It seemed best that she should remain for a while in her father's house. Those were stormy times, and until Robert's position was perfectly established, she would be more safe from secret foes in the humbler home of her parents than in the castle itself, with all its mighty walls and its store of weapons.

He had lost one upon whom he had been more than a little inclined to rely—the "wizard" Ermenoldus—and in a way to make him feel the loss the more keenly. Ermenoldus had accused certain nobles of being unfaithful to Robert. One by one they challenged him to single combat. One by one they were defeated, but at last in a final duel with a forester he was slain. Sorrow, pleasure, anxiety, triumph, contended in Robert's [31] mind. It is no wonder that he was restless and uneasy.

"One would think that the great folks might let us sleep of nights," said a peasant woman sleepily to her husband, as she turned wearily on the heap of straw that was their bed.

"That was the duke," said her husband. "Listen! you can hear his horse's hoof-beats even now, and he must be almost up to the castle. He gallops faster than any one else."

"Why can't he do his galloping by day?" grumbled the woman. "They take our cattle, and they make us work in their fields and on their roads. If we turn around we have to pay a tax, and if we stand still, we have to pay a tax. They might let us sleep at night."

"Perhaps the duke cannot sleep either," said the peasant; and he added significantly: "It is not good to fight with one's brother. I have heard that if a man does, little demons will come at night and torment him."

"Perhaps evil spirits made him do it," said the wife making the sign of the cross; but the husband said:—

"I don't believe he is a very good man, for [32] they say that sometimes he burns a whole armful of wax candles in a night, because he won't be in the dark."

"Well, everybody knows that wax candles ought to be given to the church," said the wife.

"A wizard used to come to see him sometimes," said the man, "and no one knew how he ever got into the castle or how he got out of it. The porter said that once when the wizard was standing close to him and the gate was shut, he looked away for just a minute, and when he turned, the wizard was gone; but when he opened the gate half an hour later, the wizard was going down the hill as free as might be, and the porter declared that when the man waved his hand, he could see a streak of fire."

"It might have been his ghost," said the woman.

"It might now,"  said her husband, "but he wasn't dead then. Mayhap, though, it was his ghost that fought the— No, he was not dead then, either. They used to say that he could make a vine grow fast or slow as he would, and that if he looked at you over the right shoulder, you would have good luck, but that if he looked at [33] you over the left shoulder, whatever you planted would die or your house would burn down or the spring would dry up or something bad would come to you. I have heard that if he said some good words over the ground, there would be a great harvest, and that if he shook his head at the moon and said something that no one could understand, any one that went out into the moonlight that night would fall down dead."

"Duke Richard fell down dead right after the great feast, didn't he? They say that the wizard was there."

"No, he wasn't there; but what happened then is why they call the duke 'Robert the Devil.' They say it was only Richard and the very bravest of his knights that died, and that not one of Duke Robert's men was hurt."

"I think it was all that wizard," said the wife positively. "A wizard can do things if he isn't there; and then he might have been there, even if they couldn't see him. A wizard doesn't have to be seen if he doesn't choose to be. He might have looked at the wine over the left shoulder. Duke Robert is kind and good, I am sure of that, for when he was riding at full speed one day, [34] Pierre's little girl stood still in the road right in front of his horse. He had a right to run over her, of course, but he dashed out among those great stones just at the turn of the road and did not harm her at all. And there's something more to tell, for instead of going down on her knees and thanking him for sparing her life, the silly little thing only opened her mouth and cried at the top of her voice."

"Didn't he even tell some one to beat her?"

"No, that he did not; he bent away down from the saddle—and he might have fallen off and rolled down the bank and been killed; only think of it, the duke killed for the child of a serf!—he bent down from the saddle and caught her up. The mother thought he was going to throw her down over the rocks, and she began to cry too; but he gave the child a ride on that great black horse of his, and then lifted her down and filled both her hands with red and white sugar-plums, the kind that they say great folks have at their feasts. No one in the village ever saw any before, and all the people around here have been in to see them. The child is so proud that when she plays with the other children, she is all the time saying, 'You never rode on the great black [35] horse'; and really her mother isn't much better, for she says her daughter shall never marry any man who isn't at least a freeman."

"She will marry the one that the duke chooses, of course," said the husband; "but she was certainly a fortunate child. Not many nobles would have let her off so easily when she was right in the road. Perhaps it was the wizard, after all, and Duke Robert had nothing to do with the wine."

"I heard one of the knights call the duke 'Robert the Magnificent,' " said the woman.

"And I heard one call him 'Robert the Devil,' " said the man.

"I suppose the great folks have some way of knowing which is right," said the woman, and then they went to sleep.

More than once that night did the great black horse gallop up and down the winding road between the castle and the village below the hill. More than once did the rider in his restlessness fling himself from the saddle and stride impatiently up and down in front of his stronghold. Then he would mount again and ride furiously down the hill, the hoofs of his horse striking fire on the stones in his path.


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