For almost a year already Roger had watched the thick stone walls of the new house going up. All the time he was impatient and excited because he knew that it was going to be a marvel, it had been talked of for so long. So far, except for its tremendous solidity, it was not so very different from their old Saxon hall. It had arrow slits for windows and two rows of wooden pillars down the middle which would support the upper floor. It had no door. If he climbed up the builders' ladder outside and down inside, it felt like being in a prison, or perhaps in a very safe place. It depended on what game Roger was playing. He had never seen a stone house, and this one was to have two floors, an upstairs and a down. What could be grander? They would live on the upper floor, and the entrance door would be up there, up a flight of outside stairs. The ground floor would be for storage only. It was hard to imagine. All the houses in the village were either timber or wattle-and-daub. The hall his family had lived in till now was log-built, solid and dark and smoky. Its walls and rafters were painted in bright colors, but the smoke from the fire in the center of the floor blackened them as it curled its way up to the hole in the roof which served as a chimney. If, on a bitterly cold day sitting on the river bank with his fishing line, Roger thought of the great comfort of being back again in the house, the smell of wood smoke, and food, and people, and wet dogs, and straw and stable (for the four white oxen and the best horses had their stalls in with the family), came to mind as the coziest thing imaginable.
The Saxon hall was the center of the manor estate which Roger's father, Osmund d'Aulneaux, held under the Norman earl, whose daughter, the lady Eleanor, he had married. Originally the hall stood on a piece of ground half enclosed by a small backwater of the river. In the troubled time when King William Rufus died, Osmund had had the watercourse deepened and widened into a moat, cut off from the river and palisaded on the inner side. In case of attack the villagers and all the cattle could take refuge inside.
"No sensible man," Osmund said, "expects peace to last. But I hope this new house will. The church was built by the earl as a thanksgiving for the return of his son from the Crusade. What will our Bernard think when he comes back safe and sound from the fighting and finds his mother living in a fine stone manor house ready to welcome him?"
He said this to comfort his wife. Bernard, their eldest son, had gone as a page to the earl's brother who still lived in Normandy. There had been much fighting there, and no news had come from him for six months. His mother thought of him day and night. He had been sent away to the earl's household when he was only eight. It was the usual practice for the eldest son to be brought up by more important relations both to give him a better position and to bind the families together, but the lady Eleanor had never got over the parting. No other son could make up to her for her first-born. She was stern with her two daughters, and they took it out of Roger whenever they had the chance. The pages of the house were older than he. They spent their free time joking with the girls, playing such games as Blind Man's Buff that gave a chance of cuddling, or just making silly jokes, so Roger was rather left out. His grandmother was the one who loved him most. She was Osmund's mother, a Saxon of high birth. She lived in what was now her son's house, but it had been hers all her married life. Her Norman daughter-in-law, the lady Eleanor, looked down on her as a mere Saxon. This was always noticeable, because though the old lady had learned to speak French from her girlhood when she was given in marriage to a Norman, she never spoke it like a Norman-born. She loved her son, and after him all her affection was for Roger. She told him the old Saxon legends and stories, in which often the Normans were the enemies and did not always get the best of it, and she told them in her native English which best suited their racy style. This had to be confidential between her and Roger, as the lady Eleanor did not approve. In Norman families French was the proper language. English was for the natives, the lower orders. But the grandmother too was proud of her birth, and she loved her native land as a conqueror never could. She taught Roger that he had famous Saxon ancestors and that love of this particular place ran in his blood. Roger was the second son, eleven years old, just at the age to be most interested in the builders and their work. There is no stone in the fenlands, so it had to be brought from a quarry in the midlands. There it was loaded into barges and came down the river easily enough following the current. On arrival near the manor it was loaded into carts and drawn by oxen to the site. Usually Roger spotted the barge as it appeared round the bend in the river far upstream, and he saw the unloading through with as much keenness as if he were in charge.
The walls were built of rough stone, carefully bedded and fitted together, but the larger blocks were tooled on the spot to fit corners and window ledges and arches. The master mason was very tolerant with the lord's son, and perhaps he would have been with any boy. Roger was allowed to try his hand. He was shown how every stone has a grain like wood and must be placed with the grain lying horizontally, or it will split. The mason handled the stone lovingly.
"There's good stone and bad stone," he said, "you could say it's living. Put your hand on a natural boulder warm in the sun, you can feel it's not dead, like bone for instance. The sun makes no difference to bone. Some pieces of stone are by nature bad, you can't do anything with them, and some are solid and loyal and will last for ever. Besides that, stone takes something from what it is used for. I've got a piece here that's going into your wall. It didn't come from the quarry but from a stone merchant. It came out of a little church that the Vikings burnt down. It has got a Saxon cross on it. I'm keeping it for the upper room."
Usually Roger spent the morning learning the arts of knighthood, for he would be a fighting knight when he grew up. He was dressed in imitation armor of stiff leather, and carried a wooden shield, and then on horseback practiced the rudiments of the kind of fighting peculiar to knights. He would have to be a skilled and daring rider, and also to understand hawking. His sisters also rode and hawked, but demurely on led horses, for they sat sideways. Now in the commotion of building, they, poor girls, were kept indoors spinning and weaving and embroidering with fine bone needles all the linen that would be needed for the grander house. They envied even the milkmaid who went out into the meadow at milking time, for cows were not brought into the byre, but, Norman fashion, the girl went out with a yoke across her shoulders and two wooden buckets and sought out each of the cows scattered across the common to milk it where it stood.
Unlike his sisters, Roger was at a loose end. When he had had his riding lesson and groomed his pony he must find occupation for himself. The building had been going on for such a time that he was beginning to lose interest, but when at long last the builders reached the upper level his enthusiasm was strongly revived. He was thrilled with the pulleys for lifting the large stones of the window-heads into place. He longed to be allowed to be one of the team who hauled on the rope to raise them, to have a hand himself in making these windows, which seemed to him, who had hitherto known only small slots between wooden uprights, the most glorious light-giving invention. He had seen them of course in the new church, but to have them in the house where he was to live was almost unthinkable. When he saw the first one in p...