Rebecca and Rowena; a romance upon romance, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter I.

The Overture. — Commencement of the Business.

Well-beloved novel-readers and gentle patronesses of romance, assuredly it has often occurred to every one of you, that the books we delight in have very unsatisfactory conclusions, and end quite prematurely with page 320 of the third volume. At that epoch of the history it is well known that the hero is seldom more than thirty years old, and the heroine by consequence some seven or eight years younger; and I would ask any of you whether it is fair to suppose that people after the above age have nothing worthy of note in their lives, and cease to exist as they drive away from Saint George’s, Hanover Square? You, dear young ladies, who get your knowledge of life from the circulating library, may be led to imagine that when the marriage business is done, and Emilia is whisked off in the new travelling-carriage, by the side of the enraptured Earl; or Belinda, breaking away from the tearful embraces of her excellent mother, dries her own lovely eyes upon the throbbing waistcoat of her bridegroom — you may be apt, I say, to suppose that all is over then; that Emilia and the Earl are going to be happy for the rest of their lives in his lordship’s romantic castle in the North, and Belinda and her young clergyman to enjoy uninterrupted bliss in their rose-trellised parsonage in the West of England: but some there be among the novel-reading classes — old experienced folks — who know better than this. Some there be who have been married, and found that they have still something to see and to do, and to suffer mayhap; and that adventures, and pains, and pleasures, and taxes, and sunrises and settings, and the business and joys and griefs of life go on after, as before the nuptial ceremony.

Therefore I say, it is an unfair advantage which the novelist takes of hero and heroine, as of his inexperienced reader, to say good-by to the two former, as soon as ever they are made husband and wife; and I have often wished that additions should be made to all works of fiction which have been brought to abrupt terminations in the manner described; and that we should hear what occurs to the sober married man, as well as to the ardent bachelor; to the matron, as well as to the blushing spinster. And in this respect I admire (and would desire to imitate,) the noble and prolific French author, Alexandre Dumas, who carries his heroes from early youth down to the most venerable old age; and does not let them rest until they are so old, that it is full time the poor fellows should get a little peace and quiet. A hero is much too valuable a gentleman to be put upon the retired list, in the prime and vigor of his youth; and I wish to know what lady among us would like to be put on the shelf, and thought no longer interesting, because she has a family growing up, and is four or five and thirty years of age? I have known ladies at sixty, with hearts as tender and ideas as romantic as any young misses of sixteen. Let us have middle-aged novels then, as well as your extremely juvenile legends: let the young ones be warned that the old folks have a right to be interesting: and that a lady may continue to have a heart, although she is somewhat stouter than she was when a school-girl, and a man his feelings, although he gets his hair from Truefitt’s.

Thus I would desire that the biographies of many of our most illustrious personages of romance should be continued by fitting hands, and that they should be heard of, until at least a decent age. — Look at Mr. James’s heroes: they invariably marry young. Look at Mr. Dickens’s: they disappear from the scene when they are mere chits. I trust these authors, who are still alive, will see the propriety of telling us something more about people in whom we took a considerable interest, and who must be at present strong and hearty, and in the full vigor of health and intellect. And in the tales of the great Sir Walter (may honor be to his name), I am sure there are a number of people who are untimely carried away from us, and of whom we ought to hear more.

My dear Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, has always, in my mind, been one of these; nor can I ever believe that such a woman, so admirable, so tender, so heroic, so beautiful, could disappear altogether before such another woman as Rowena, that vapid, flaxen-headed creature, who is, in my humble opinion, unworthy of Ivanhoe, and unworthy of her place as heroine. Had both of them got their rights, it ever seemed to me that Rebecca would have had the husband, and Rowena would have gone off to a convent and shut herself up, where I, for one, would never have taken the trouble of inquiring for her.

But after all she married Ivanhoe. What is to be done? There is no help for it. There it is in black and white at the end of the third volume of Sir Walter Scott’s chronicle, that the couple were joined together in matrimony. And must the Disinherited Knight, whose blood has been fired by the suns of Palestine, and whose heart has been warmed in the company of the tender and beautiful Rebecca, sit down contented for life by the side of such a frigid piece of propriety as that icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena? Forbid it fate, forbid it poetical justice! There is a simple plan for setting matters right, and giving all parties their due, which is here submitted to the novel-reader. Ivanhoe’s history MUST have had a continuation; and it is this which ensues. I may be wrong in some particulars of the narrative — as what writer will not be? — but of the main incidents of the history, I have in my own mind no sort of doubt, and confidently submit them to that generous public which likes to see virtue righted, true love rewarded, and the brilliant Fairy descend out of the blazing chariot at the end of the pantomime, and make Harlequin and Columbine happy. What, if reality be not so, gentlemen and ladies; and if, after dancing a variety of jigs and antics, and jumping in and out of endless trap-doors and windows, through life’s shifting scenes, no fairy comes down to make US comfortable at the close of the performance? Ah! let us give our honest novel-folks the benefit of their position, and not be envious of their good luck.

No person who has read the preceding volumes of this history, as the famous chronicler of Abbotsford has recorded them, can doubt for a moment what was the result of the marriage between Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe and Lady Rowena. Those who have marked her conduct during her maidenhood, her distinguished politeness, her spotless modesty of demeanor, her unalterable coolness under all circumstances, and her lofty and gentlewomanlike bearing, must be sure that her married conduct would equal her spinster behavior, and that Rowena the wife would be a pattern of correctness for all the matrons of England.

Such was the fact. For miles around Rotherwood her character for piety was known. Her castle was a rendezvous for all the clergy and monks of the district, whom she fed with the richest viands, while she pinched herself upon pulse and water. There was not an invalid in the three Ridings, Saxon or Norman, but the palfrey of the Lady Rowena might be seen journeying to his door, in company with Father Glauber, her almoner, and Brother Thomas of Epsom, her leech. She lighted up all the churches in Yorkshire with wax-candles, the offerings of her piety. The bells of her chapel began to ring at two o’clock in the morning; and all the domestics of Rotherwood were called upon to attend at matins, at complins, at nones, at vespers, and at sermon. I need not say that fasting was observed with all the rigors of the Church; and that those of the servants of the Lady Rowena were looked upon with most favor whose hair-shirts were the roughest, and who flagellated themselves with the most becoming perseverance.

Whether it was that this discipline cleared poor Wamba’s wits or cooled his humor, it is certain that he became the most melancholy fool in England, and if ever he ventured upon a pun to the shuddering poor servitors, who were mumbling their dry crusts below the salt, it was such a faint and stale joke that noboby dared to laugh at the innuendoes of the unfortunate wag, and a sickly smile was the best applause he could muster. Once, indeed, when Guffo, the goose-boy (a half-witted poor wretch), laughed outright at a lamentably stale pun which Wamba palmed upon him at supper-time, (it was dark, and the torches being brought in, Wamba said, “Guffo, they can’t see their way in the argument, and are going TO THROW A LITTLE LIGHT UPON THE SUBJECT,”) the Lady Rowena, being disturbed in a theological controversy with Father Willibald, (afterwards canonized as St. Willibald, of Bareacres, hermit and confessor,) called out to know what was the cause of the unseemly interruption, and Guffo and Wamba being pointed out as the culprits, ordered them straightway into the court-yard, and three dozen to be administered to each of them.

“I got you out of Front-de-Boeufs castle,” said poor Wamba, piteously, appealing to Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, “and canst thou not save me from the lash?”

“Yes, from Front-de-Boeuf’s castle, WHERE YOU WERE LOCKED UP WITH THE JEWESS IN THE TOWER!” said Rowena, haughtily replying to the timid appeal of her husband. “Gurth, give him four dozen!”

And this was all poor Wamba got by applying for the mediation of his master.

In fact, Rowena knew her own dignity so well as a princess of the royal blood of England, that Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, her consort, could scarcely call his life his own, and was made, in all things, to feel the inferiority of his station. And which of us is there acquainted with the sex that has not remarked this propensity in lovely woman, and how often the wisest in the council are made to be as fools at HER board, and the boldest in the battle-field are craven when facing her distaff?

“Where you were locked up with the Jewess in the tower,” was a remark, too, of which Wilfrid keenly felt, and perhaps the reader will understand, the significancy. When the daughter of Isaac of York brought her diamonds and rubies — the poor gentle victim! — and, meekly laying them at the feet of the conquering Rowena, departed into foreign lands to tend the sick of her people, and to brood over the bootless passion which consumed her own pure heart, one would have thought that the heart of the royal lady would have melted before such beauty and humility, and that she would have been generous in the moment of her victory.

But did you ever know a right-minded woman pardon another for being handsome and more love-worthy than herself? The Lady Rowena did certainly say with mighty magnanimity to the Jewish maiden, “Come and live with me as a sister,” as the former part of this history shows; but Rebecca knew in her heart that her ladyship’s proposition was what is called BOSH (in that noble Eastern language with which Wilfrid the Crusader was familiar), or fudge, in plain Saxon; and retired with a broken, gentle spirit, neither able to bear the sight of her rival’s happiness, nor willing to disturb it by the contrast of her own wretchedness. Rowena, like the most high-bred and virtuous of women, never forgave Isaac’s daughter her beauty, nor her flirtation with Wilfrid (as the Saxon lady chose to term it); nor, above all, her admirable diamonds and jewels, although Rowena was actually in possession of them.

In a word, she was always flinging Rebecca into Ivanhoe’s teeth. There was not a day in his life but that unhappy warrior was made to remember that a Hebrew damsel had been in love with him, and that a Christian lady of fashion could never forgive the insult. For instance, if Gurth, the swineherd, who was now promoted to be a gamekeeper and verderer, brought the account of a famous wild-boar in the wood, and proposed a hunt, Rowena would say, “Do, Sir Wilfrid, persecute these poor pigs: you know your friends the Jews can’t abide them!” Or when, as it oft would happen, our lion-hearted monarch, Richard, in order to get a loan or a benevolence from the Jews, would roast a few of the Hebrew capitalists, or extract some of the principal rabbis’ teeth, Rowena would exult and say, “Serve them right, the misbelieving wretches! England can never be a happy country until every one of these monsters is exterminated!” or else, adopting a strain of still more savage sarcasm, would exclaim, “Ivanhoe my dear, more persecution for the Jews! Hadn’t you better interfere, my love? His Majesty will do anything for you; and, you know, the Jews were ALWAYS SUCH FAVORITES OF YOURS,” or words to that effect. But, nevertheless, her ladyship never lost an opportunity of wearing Rebecca’s jewels at court, whenever the Queen held a drawing-room; or at the York assizes and ball, when she appeared there: not of course because she took any interest in such things, but because she considered it her duty to attend, as one of the chief ladies of the county.

Thus Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, having attained the height of his wishes, was, like many a man when he has reached that dangerous elevation, disappointed. Ah, dear friends, it is but too often so in life! Many a garden, seen from a distance, looks fresh and green, which, when beheld closely, is dismal and weedy; the shady walks melancholy and grass-grown; the bowers you would fain repose in, cushioned with stinging-nettles. I have ridden in a caique upon the waters of the Bosphorus, and looked upon the capital of the Soldan of Turkey. As seen from those blue waters, with palace and pinnacle, with gilded dome and towering cypress, it seemeth a very Paradise of Mahound: but, enter the city, and it is but a beggarly labyrinth of rickety huts and dirty alleys, where the ways are steep and the smells are foul, tenanted by mangy dogs and ragged beggars — a dismal illusion! Life is such, ah, well-a-day! It is only hope which is real, and reality is a bitterness and a deceit.

Perhaps a man with Ivanhoe’s high principles would never bring himself to acknowledge this fact; but others did for him. He grew thin, and pined away as much as if he had been in a fever under the scorching sun of Ascalon. He had no appetite for his meals; he slept ill, though he was yawning all day. The jangling of the doctors and friars whom Rowena brought together did not in the least enliven him, and he would sometimes give proofs of somnolency during their disputes, greatly to the consternation of his lady. He hunted a good deal, and, I very much fear, as Rowena rightly remarked, that he might have an excuse for being absent from home. He began to like wine, too, who had been as sober as a hermit; and when he came back from Athelstane’s (whither he would repair not unfrequently), the unsteadiness of his gait and the unnatural brilliancy of his eye were remarked by his lady: who, you may be sure, was sitting up for him. As for Athelstane, he swore by St. Wullstan that he was glad to have escaped a marriage with such a pattern of propriety; and honest Cedric the Saxon (who had been very speedily driven out of his daughter-inlaw’s castle) vowed by St. Waltheof that his son had bought a dear bargain.

So Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe became almost as tired of England as his royal master Richard was, (who always quitted the country when he had squeezed from his loyal nobles, commons, clergy, and Jews, all the money which he could get,) and when the lion-hearted Prince began to make war against the French King, in Normandy and Guienne, Sir Wilfrid pined like a true servant to be in company of the good champion, alongside of whom he had shivered so many lances, and dealt such woundy blows of sword and battle-axe on the plains of Jaffa or the breaches of Acre. Travellers were welcome at Rotherwood that brought news from the camp of the good King: and I warrant me that the knight listened with all his might when Father Drono, the chaplain, read in the St. James’s Chronykyll (which was the paper of news he of Ivanhoe took in) of “another glorious triumph”—“Defeat of the French near Blois”—“Splendid victory at Epte, and narrow escape of the French King:” the which deeds of arms the learned scribes had to narrate.

However such tales might excite him during the reading, they left the Knight of Ivanhoe only the more melancholy after listening: and the more moody as he sat in his great hall silently draining his Gascony wine. Silently sat he and looked at his coats-of-mail hanging vacant on the wall, his banner covered with spider-webs, and his sword and axe rusting there. “Ah, dear axe,” sighed he (into his drinking-horn)—“ah, gentle steel! that was a merry time when I sent thee crashing into the pate of the Emir Abdul Melik as he rode on the right of Saladin. Ah, my sword, my dainty headsman? my sweet split-rib? my razor of infidel beards! is the rust to eat thine edge off, and am I never more to wield thee in battle? What is the use of a shield on a wall, or a lance that has a cobweb for a pennon? O Richard, my good king, would I could hear once more thy voice in the front of the onset! Bones of Brian the Templar? would ye could rise from your grave at Templestowe, and that we might break another spear for honor and — and —” . . .

“And REBECCA,” he would have said; but the knight paused here in rather a guilty panic: and her Royal Highness the Princess Rowena (as she chose to style herself at home) looked so hard at him out of her china-blue eyes, that Sir Wilfrid felt as if she was reading his thoughts, and was fain to drop his own eyes into his flagon.

In a word, his life was intolerable. The dinner hour of the twelfth century, it is known, was very early; in fact, people dined at ten o’clock in the morning: and after dinner Rowena sat mum under her canopy, embroidered with the arms of Edward the Confessor, working with her maidens at the most hideous pieces of tapestry, representing the tortures and martyrdoms of her favorite saints, and not allowing a soul to speak above his breath, except when she chose to cry out in her own shrill voice when a handmaid made a wrong stitch, or let fall a ball of worsted. It was a dreary life. Wamba, we have said, never ventured to crack a joke, save in a whisper, when he was ten miles from home; and then Sir Wilfrid Ivanhoe was too weary and blue-devilled to laugh; but hunted in silence, moodily bringing down deer and wild-boar with shaft and quarrel.

Then he besought Robin of Huntingdon, the jolly outlaw, nathless, to join him, and go to the help of their fair sire King Richard, with a score or two of lances. But the Earl of Huntingdon was a very different character from Robin Hood the forester. There was no more conscientious magistrate in all the county than his lordship: he was never known to miss church or quarter-sessions; he was the strictest game-proprietor in all the Riding, and sent scores of poachers to Botany Bay. “A man who has a stake in the country, my good Sir Wilfrid,” Lord Huntingdon said, with rather a patronizing air (his lordship had grown immensely fat since the King had taken him into grace, and required a horse as strong as an elephant to mount him)—“a man with a stake in the country ought to stay IN the country. Property has its duties as well as its privileges, and a person of my rank is bound to live on the land from which he gets his living.”

“‘Amen!” sang out the Reverend —— Tuck, his lordship’s domestic chaplain, who had also grown as sleek as the Abbot of Jorvaulx, who was as prim as a lady in his dress, wore bergamot in his handkerchief, and had his poll shaved and his beard curled every day. And so sanctified was his Reverence grown, that he thought it was a shame to kill the pretty deer, (though he ate of them still hugely, both in pasties and with French beans and currant-jelly,) and being shown a quarter-staff upon a certain occasion, handled it curiously, and asked “what that ugly great stick was?”

Lady Huntingdon, late Maid Marian, had still some of her old fun and spirits, and poor Ivanhoe begged and prayed that she would come and stay at Rotherwood occasionally, and egayer the general dulness of that castle. But her ladyship said that Rowena gave herself such airs, and bored her so intolerably with stories of King Edward the Confessor, that she preferred any place rather than Rotherwood, which was as dull as if it had been at the top of Mount Athos.

The only person who visited it was Athelstane. “His Royal Highness the Prince” Rowena of course called him, whom the lady received with royal honors. She had the guns fired, and the footmen turned out with presented arms when he arrived; helped him to all Ivanhoe’s favorite cuts of the mutton or the turkey, and forced her poor husband to light him to the state bedroom, walking backwards, holding a pair of wax-candles. At this hour of bedtime the Thane used to be in such a condition, that he saw two pair of candles and two Ivanhoes reeling before him. Let us hope it was not Ivanhoe that was reeling, but only his kinsman’s brains muddled with the quantities of drink which it was his daily custom to consume. Rowena said it was the crack which the wicked Bois Guilbert, “the Jewess’s OTHER lover, Wilfrid my dear,” gave him on his royal skull, which caused the Prince to be disturbed so easily; but added, that drinking became a person of royal blood, and was but one of the duties of his station.

Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe saw it would be of no avail to ask this man to bear him company on his projected tour abroad; but still he himself was every day more and more bent upon going, and he long cast about for some means of breaking to his Rowena his firm resolution to join the King. He thought she would certainty fall ill if he communicated the news too abruptly to her: he would pretend a journey to York to attend a grand jury; then a call to London on law business or to buy stock; then he would slip over to Calais by the packet, by degrees as it were; and so be with the King before his wife knew that he was out of sight of Westminster Hall.

“Suppose your honor says you are going as your honor would say Bo! to a goose, plump, short, and to the point,” said Wamba the Jester — who was Sir Wilfrid’s chief counsellor and attendant —“depend on’t her Highness would bear the news like a Christian woman.”

“Tush, malapert! I will give thee the strap,” said Sir Wilfrid, in a fine tone of high-tragedy indignation. “Thou knowest not the delicacy of the nerves of high-born ladies. An she faint not, write me down Hollander.”

“I will wager my bauble against an Irish billet of exchange that she will let your honor go off readily: that is, if you press not the matter too strongly,” Wamba answered, knowingly. And this Ivanhoe found to his discomfiture: for one morning at breakfast, adopting a degage air, as he sipped his tea, he said, “My love, I was thinking of going over to pay his Majesty a visit in Normandy.” Upon which, laying down her muffin, (which, since the royal Alfred baked those cakes, had been the chosen breakfast cate of noble Anglo-Saxons, and which a kneeling page tendered to her on a salver, chased by the Florentine, Benvenuto Cellini,)—“When do you think of going, Wilfrid my dear?” the lady said; and the moment the tea-things were removed, and the tables and their trestles put away, she set about mending his linen, and getting ready his carpet-bag.

So Sir Wilfrid was as disgusted at her readiness to part with him as he had been weary of staying at home, which caused Wamba the Fool to say, “Marry, gossip, thou art like the man on ship-board, who, when the boatswain flogged him, did cry out ‘Oh!’ wherever the rope’s-end fell on him: which caused Master Boatswain to say, ‘Plague on thee, fellow, and a pize on thee, knave, wherever I hit thee there is no pleasing thee.’”

“And truly there are some backs which Fortune is always belaboring,” thought Sir Wilfrid with a groan, “and mine is one that is ever sore.”

So, with a moderate retinue, whereof the knave Wamba made one, and a large woollen comforter round his neck, which his wife’s own white fingers had woven, Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe left home to join the King his master. Rowena, standing on the steps, poured out a series of prayers and blessings, most edifying to hear, as her lord mounted his charger, which his squires led to the door. “It was the duty of the British female of rank,” she said, “to suffer all — ALL in the cause of her sovereign. SHE would not fear loneliness during the campaign: she would bear up against widowhood, desertion, and an unprotected situation.”

“My cousin Athelstane will protect thee,” said Ivanhoe, with profound emotion, as the tears trickled down his basenet; and bestowing a chaste salute upon the steel-clad warrior, Rowena modestly said “she hoped his Highness would be so kind.”

Then Ivanhoe’s trumpet blew: then Rowena waved her pocket-handkerchief: then the household gave a shout: then the pursuivant of the good Knight, Sir Wilfrid the Crusader, flung out his banner (which was argent, a gules cramoisy with three Moors impaled sable): then Wamba gave a lash on his mule’s haunch, and Ivanhoe, heaving a great sigh, turned the tail of his war-horse upon the castle of his fathers.

As they rode along the forest, they met Athelstane the Thane powdering along the road in the direction of Rotherwood on his great dray-horse of a charger. “Good-by, good luck to you, old brick,” cried the Prince, using the vernacular Saxon. “Pitch into those Frenchmen; give it ’em over the face and eyes; and I’ll stop at home and take care of Mrs. I.”

“Thank you, kinsman,” said Ivanhoe — looking, however, not particularly well pleased; and the chiefs shaking hands, the train of each took its different way — Athelstane’s to Rotherwood, Ivanhoe’s towards his place of embarkation.

The poor knight had his wish, and yet his face was a yard long and as yellow as a lawyer’s parchment; and having longed to quit home any time these three years past, he found himself envying Athelstane, because, forsooth, he was going to Rotherwood: which symptoms of discontent being observed by the witless Wamba, caused that absurd madman to bring his rebeck over his shoulder from his back, and to sing —

“ATRA CURA.

“Before I lost my five poor wits,
I mind me of a Romish clerk,
Who sang how Care, the phantom dark,
Beside the belted horseman sits.
Methought I saw the griesly sprite
Jump up but now behind my Knight.”

“Perhaps thou didst, knave,” said Ivanhoe, looking over his shoulder; and the knave went on with his jingle:

“And though he gallop as he may,
I mark that cursed monster black
Still sits behind his honor’s back,
Tight squeezing of his heart alway.
Like two black Templars sit they there,
Beside one crupper, Knight and Care.

“No knight am I with pennoned spear,
To prance upon a bold destrere:
I will not have black Care prevail
Upon my long-eared charger’s tail,
For lo, I am a witless fool,
And laugh at Grief and ride a mule.”

And his bells rattled as he kicked his mule’s sides.

“Silence, fool!” said Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, in a voice both majestic and wrathful. “If thou knowest not care and grief, it is because thou knowest not love, whereof they are the companions. Who can love without an anxious heart? How shall there be joy at meeting, without tears at parting?” (“I did not see that his honor or my lady shed many anon,” thought Wamba the Fool; but he was only a zany, and his mind was not right.) “I would not exchange my very sorrows for thine indifference,” the knight continued. “Where there is a sun, there must be a shadow. If the shadow offend me, shall I put out my eyes and live in the dark? No! I am content with my fate, even such as it is. The Care of which thou speakest, hard though it may vex him, never yet rode down an honest man. I can bear him on my shoulders, and make my way through the world’s press in spite of him; for my arm is strong, and my sword is keen, and my shield has no stain on it; and my heart, though it is sad, knows no guile.” And here, taking a locket out of his waistcoat (which was made of chain-mail), the knight kissed the token, put it back under the waistcoat again, heaved a profound sigh, and stuck spurs into his horse.

As for Wamba, he was munching a black pudding whilst Sir Wilfrid was making the above speech, (which implied some secret grief on the knight’s part, that must have been perfectly unintelligible to the fool,) and so did not listen to a single word of Ivanhoe’s pompous remarks. They travelled on by slow stages through the whole kingdom, until they came to Dover, whence they took shipping for Calais. And in this little voyage, being exceedingly sea-sick, and besides elated at the thought of meeting his sovereign, the good knight cast away that profound melancholy which had accompanied him during the whole of his land journey.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07