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

Chapter II.

The Last Days of the Lion.

From Calais Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe took the diligence across country to Limoges, sending on Gurth, his squire, with the horses and the rest of his attendants: with the exception of Wamba, who travelled not only as the knight’s fool, but as his valet, and who, perched on the roof of the carriage, amused himself by blowing tunes upon the conducteur’s French horn. The good King Richard was, as Ivanhoe learned, in the Limousin, encamped before a little place called Chalus; the lord whereof, though a vassal of the King’s, was holding the castle against his sovereign with a resolution and valor which caused a great fury and annoyance on the part of the Monarch with the Lion Heart. For brave and magnanimous as he was, the Lion-hearted one did not love to be balked any more than another; and, like the royal animal whom he was said to resemble, he commonly tore his adversary to pieces, and then, perchance, had leisure to think how brave the latter had been. The Count of Chalus had found, it was said, a pot of money; the royal Richard wanted it. As the count denied that he had it, why did he not open the gates of his castle at once? It was a clear proof that he was guilty; and the King was determined to punish this rebel, and have his money and his life too.

He had naturally brought no breaching guns with him, because those instruments were not yet invented: and though he had assaulted the place a score of times with the utmost fury, his Majesty had been beaten back on every occasion, until he was so savage that it was dangerous to approach the British Lion. The Lion’s wife, the lovely Berengaria, scarcely ventured to come near him. He flung the joint-stools in his tent at the heads of the officers of state, and kicked his aides-de-camp round his pavilion; and, in fact, a maid of honor, who brought a sack-posset in to his Majesty from the Queen after he came in from the assault, came spinning like a football out of the royal tent just as Ivanhoe entered it.

“Send me my drum-major to flog that woman!” roared out the infuriate King. “By the bones of St. Barnabas she has burned the sack! By St. Wittikind, I will have her flayed alive. Ha, St. George! ha, St. Richard! whom have we here?” And he lifted up his demi-culverin, or curtal-axe — a weapon weighing about thirteen hundredweight — and was about to fling it at the intruder’s head, when the latter, kneeling gracefully on one knee, said calmly, “It is I, my good liege, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe.”

“What, Wilfrid of Templestowe, Wilfrid the married man, Wilfrid the henpecked!” cried the King with a sudden burst of good-humor, flinging away the culverin from him, as though it had been a reed (it lighted three hundred yards off, on the foot of Hugo de Bunyon, who was smoking a cigar at the door of his tent, and caused that redoubted warrior to limp for some days after). “What, Wilfrid my gossip? Art come to see the lion’s den? There are bones in it, man, bones and carcasses, and the lion is angry,” said the King, with a terrific glare of his eyes. “But tush! we will talk of that anon. Ho! bring two gallons of hypocras for the King and the good Knight, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe. Thou art come in time, Wilfrid, for, by St. Richard and St. George, we will give a grand assault tomorrow. There will be bones broken, ha!”

“I care not, my liege,” said Ivanhoe, pledging the sovereign respectfully, and tossing off the whole contents of the bowl of hypocras to his Highness’s good health. And he at once appeared to be taken into high favor; not a little to the envy of many of the persons surrounding the King.

As his Majesty said, there was fighting and feasting in plenty before Chalus. Day after day, the besiegers made assaults upon the castle, but it was held so stoutly by the Count of Chalus and his gallant garrison, that each afternoon beheld the attacking-parties returning disconsolately to their tents, leaving behind them many of their own slain, and bringing back with them store of broken heads and maimed limbs, received in the unsuccessful onset. The valor displayed by Ivanhoe in all these contests was prodigious; and the way in which he escaped death from the discharges of mangonels, catapults, battering-rams, twenty-four pounders, boiling oil, and other artillery, with which the besieged received their enemies, was remarkable. After a day’s fighting, Gurth and Wamba used to pick the arrows out of their intrepid master’s coat-of-mail, as if they had been so many almonds in a pudding. ’Twas well for the good knight, that under his first coat-of armor he wore a choice suit of Toledan steel, perfectly impervious to arrow-shots, and given to him by a certain Jew, named Isaac of York, to whom he had done some considerable services a few years back.

If King Richard had not been in such a rage at the repeated failures of his attacks upon the castle, that all sense of justice was blinded in the lion-hearted monarch, he would have been the first to acknowledge the valor of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, and would have given him a Peerage and the Grand Cross of the Bath at least a dozen times in the course of the siege: for Ivanhoe led more than a dozen storming parties, and with his own hand killed as many men (viz, two thousand three hundred and fifty-one) within six, as were slain by the lion-hearted monarch himself. But his Majesty was rather disgusted than pleased by his faithful servant’s prowess; and all the courtiers, who hated Ivanhoe for his superior valor and dexterity (for he would kill you off a couple of hundreds of them of Chalus, whilst the strongest champions of the Kings host could not finish more than their two dozen of a day), poisoned the royal mind against Sir Wilfrid, and made the King look upon his feats of arms with an evil eye. Roger de Backbite sneeringly told the King that Sir Wilfrid had offered to bet an equal bet that he would kill more men than Richard himself in the next assault: Peter de Toadhole said that Ivanhoe stated everywhere that his Majesty was not the man he used to be; that pleasures and drink had enervated him; that he could neither ride, nor strike a blow with sword or axe, as he had been enabled to do in the old times in Palestine: and finally, in the twenty-fifth assault, in which they had very nearly carried the place, and in which onset Ivanhoe slew seven, and his Majesty six, of the sons of the Count de Chalus, its defender, Ivanhoe almost did for himself, by planting his banner before the King’s upon the wall; and only rescued himself from utter disgrace by saving his Majesty’s life several times in the course of this most desperate onslaught.

Then the luckless knight’s very virtues (as, no doubt, my respected readers know,) made him enemies amongst the men — nor was Ivanhoe liked by the women frequenting the camp of the gay King Richard. His young Queen, and a brilliant court of ladies, attended the pleasure-loving monarch. His Majesty would transact business in the morning, then fight severely from after breakfast till about three o’clock in the afternoon; from which time, until after midnight, there was nothing but jigging and singing, feasting and revelry, in the royal tents. Ivanhoe, who was asked as a matter of ceremony, and forced to attend these entertainments, not caring about the blandishments of any of the ladies present, looked on at their ogling and dancing with a countenance as glum as an undertaker’s, and was a perfect wet-blanket in the midst of the festivities. His favorite resort and conversation were with a remarkably austere hermit, who lived in the neighborhood of Chalus, and with whom Ivanhoe loved to talk about Palestine, and the Jews, and other grave matters of import, better than to mingle in the gayest amusements of the court of King Richard. Many a night, when the Queen and the ladies were dancing quadrilles and polkas (in which his Majesty, who was enormously stout as well as tall, insisted upon figuring, and in which he was about as graceful as an elephant dancing a hornpipe), Ivanhoe would steal away from the ball, and come and have a night’s chat under the moon with his reverend friend. It pained him to see a man of the King’s age and size dancing about with the young folks. They laughed at his Majesty whilst they flattered him: the pages and maids of honor mimicked the royal mountebank almost to his face; and, if Ivanhoe ever could have laughed, he certainly would one night when the King, in light-blue satin inexpressibles, with his hair in powder, chose to dance the minuet de la cour with the little Queen Berangeria.

Then, after dancing, his Majesty must needs order a guitar, and begin to sing. He was said to compose his own songs — words and music — but those who have read Lord Campobello’s “Lives of the Lord Chancellors” are aware that there was a person by the name of Blondel, who, in fact, did all the musical part of the King’s performances; and as for the words, when a king writes verses, we may be sure there will be plenty of people to admire his poetry. His Majesty would sing you a ballad, of which he had stolen every idea, to an air that was ringing on all the barrel-organs of Christendom, and, turning round to his courtiers, would say, “How do you like that? I dashed it off this morning.” Or, “Blondel, what do you think of this movement in B flat?” or what not; and the courtiers and Blondel, you may be sure, would applaud with all their might, like hypocrites as they were.

One evening — it was the evening of the 27th March, 1199, indeed — his Majesty, who was in the musical mood, treated the court with a quantity of his so-called composition, until the people were fairly tired of clapping with their hands and laughing in their sleeves. First he sang an ORIGINAL air and poem, beginning

“Cherries nice, cherries nice, nice, come choose,
Fresh and fair ones, who’ll refuse?” &c.

The which he was ready to take his affidavit he had composed the day before yesterday. Then he sang an equally ORIGINAL heroic melody, of which the chorus was

“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the sea,
For Britons never, never, never slaves shall be,” &c.

The courtiers applauded this song as they did the other, all except Ivanhoe, who sat without changing a muscle of his features, until the King questioned him, when the knight, with a bow said “he thought he had heard something very like the air and the words elsewhere.” His Majesty scowled at him a savage glance from under his red bushy eyebrows; but Ivanhoe had saved the royal life that day, and the King, therefore, with difficulty controlled his indignation.

“Well,” said he, “by St. Richard and St. George, but ye never heard THIS song, for I composed it this very afternoon as I took my bath after the melee. Did I not, Blondel?”

Blondel, of course, was ready to take an affidavit that his Majesty had done as he said, and the King, thrumming on his guitar with his great red fingers and thumbs, began to sing out of tune and as follows:—

“COMMANDERS OF THE FAITHFUL.

“The Pope he is a happy man,
His Palace is the Vatican,
And there he sits and drains his can:
The Pope he is a happy man.
I often say when I’m at home,
I’d like to be the Pope of Rome.

“And then there’s Sultan Saladin,
That Turkish Soldan full of sin;
He has a hundred wives at least,
By which his pleasure is increased:
I’ve often wished, I hope no sin,
That I were Sultan Saladin.

“But no, the Pope no wife may choose,
And so I would not wear his shoes;
No wine may drink the proud Paynim,
And so I’d rather not be him:
My wife, my wine, I love I hope,
And would be neither Turk nor Pope.”

“Encore! Encore! Bravo! Bis!” Everybody applauded the King’s song with all his might: everybody except Ivanhoe, who preserved his abominable gravity: and when asked aloud by Roger de Backbite whether he had heard that too, said firmly, “Yes, Roger de Backbite; and so hast thou if thou darest but tell the truth.”

“Now, by St. Cicely, may I never touch gittern again,” bawled the King in a fury, “if every note, word, and thought be not mine; may I die in tomorrow’s onslaught if the song be not my song. Sing thyself, Wilfrid of the Lanthorn Jaws; thou could’st sing a good song in old times.” And with all his might, and with a forced laugh, the King, who loved brutal practical jests, flung his guitar at the head of Ivanhoe.

Sir Wilfrid caught it gracefully with one hand, and making an elegant bow to the sovereign, began to chant as follows:—

“KING CANUTE.

“King Canute was weary-hearted; he had reigned for years a score,
Battling, struggling, pushing, fighting, killing much and robbing
more;
And he thought upon his actions, walking by the wild sea-shore.

“‘Twixt the Chancellor and Bishop walked the King with steps
sedate,
Chamberlains and grooms came after, silversticks and goldsticks
great,
Chaplains, aides-de-camp, and pages — all the officers of state.

“Sliding after like his shadow, pausing when he chose to pause,
If a frown his face contracted, straight the courtiers dropped
their jaws;
If to laugh the King was minded, out they burst in loud hee-haws.

“But that day a something vexed him, that was clear to old and
young:
Thrice his Grace had yawned at table, when his favorite gleemen
sung,
Once the Queen would have consoled him, but he bade her hold her
tongue.

“‘Something ails my gracious master,’ cried the Keeper of the Seal.
‘Sure, my lord, it is the lampreys served at dinner, or the veal?’
‘Psha!’ exclaimed the angry monarch. ‘Keeper, ’tis not that I
feel.

“’’Tis the HEART, and not the dinner, fool, that doth my rest
impair:
Can a King be great as I am, prithee, and yet know no care?
Oh, I’m sick, and tired, and weary.’— Some one cried, ‘The King’s
arm-chair?’

“Then towards the lackeys turning, quick my Lord the Keeper nodded,
Straight the King’s great chair was brought him, by two footmen
able-bodied;
Languidly he sank into it: it was comfortably wadded.

“‘Leading on my fierce companions,’ cried be, ‘over storm and
brine,
I have fought and I have conquered! Where was glory like to mine?’
Loudly all the courtiers echoed: ‘Where is glory like to thine?’

“‘What avail me all my kingdoms? Weary am I now, and old;
Those fair sons I have begotten, long to see me dead and cold;
Would I were, and quiet buried, underneath the silent mould!

“‘Oh, remorse, the writhing serpent! at my bosom tears and bites;
Horrid, horrid things I look on, though I put out all the lights;
Ghosts of ghastly recollections troop about my bed of nights.

“‘Cities burning, convents blazing, red with sacrilegious fires;
Mothers weeping, virgins screaming, vainly for their slaughtered
sires.’— Such a tender conscience,’ cries the Bishop, ‘every
one admires.

“‘But for such unpleasant bygones, cease, my gracious lord, to
search,
They’re forgotten and forgiven by our Holy Mother Church;
Never, never does she leave her benefactors in the lurch.

“‘Look! the land is crowned with minsters, which your Grace’s
bounty raised;
Abbeys filled with holy men, where you and Heaven are daily
praised:
YOU, my lord, to think of dying? on my conscience I’m amazed!’

“‘Nay, I feel,’ replied King Canute, ‘that my end is drawing near.’
‘Don’t say so,’ exclaimed the courtiers (striving each to squeeze a
tear).
‘Sure your Grace is strong and lusty, and may live this fifty
year.’

“‘Live these fifty years!’ the Bishop roared, with actions made to
suit.
‘Are you mad, my good Lord Keeper, thus to speak of King Canute!
Men have lived a thousand years, and sure his Majesty will do’t.

“‘Adam, Enoch, Lamech, Cainan, Mahaleel, Methusela,
Lived nine hundred years apiece, and mayn’t the King as well as
they?’
‘Fervently,’ exclaimed the Keeper, ‘fervently I trust he may.’

“‘HE to die?’ resumed the Bishop. ‘He a mortal like to US?
Death was not for him intended, though communis omnibus:
Keeper, you are irreligious, for to talk and cavil thus.

“‘With his wondrous skill in healing ne’er a doctor can compete,
Loathsome lepers, if he touch them, start up clean upon their feet;
Surely he could raise the dead up, did his Highness think it meet.

“‘Did not once the Jewish captain stay the sun upon the hill,
And, the while he slew the foemen, bid the silver moon stand still?
So, no doubt, could gracious Canute, if it were his sacred will.’

“‘Might I stay the sun above us, good Sir Bishop?’ Canute cried;
‘Could I bid the silver moon to pause upon her heavenly ride?
If the moon obeys my orders, sure I can command the tide.

“‘Will the advancing waves obey me, Bishop, if I make the sign?’
Said the Bishop, bowing lowly, ‘Land and sea, my lord, are thine.’
Canute turned towards the ocean —‘Back!’ he said, ‘thou foaming
brine

“‘From the sacred shore I stand on, I command thee to retreat;
Venture not, thou stormy rebel, to approach thy master’s seat:
Ocean, be thou still! I bid thee come not nearer to my feet!’

“But the sullen ocean answered with a louder, deeper roar,
And the rapid waves drew nearer, falling sounding on the shore;
Back the Keeper and the Bishop, back the King and courtiers bore.

“And he sternly bade them never more to kneel to human clay,
But alone to praise and worship That which earth and seas obey:
And his golden crown of empire never wore he from that day.
King Canute is dead and gone: Parasites exist alway.”

At this ballad, which, to be sure, was awfully long, and as grave as a sermon, some of the courtiers tittered, some yawned, and some affected to be asleep and snore outright. But Roger de Backbite thinking to curry favor with the King by this piece of vulgarity, his Majesty fetched him a knock on the nose and a buffet on the ear, which, I warrant me, wakened Master Roger; to whom the King said, “Listen and be civil, slave; Wilfrid is singing about thee. — Wilfrid, thy ballad is long, but it is to the purpose, and I have grown cool during thy homily. Give me thy hand, honest friend. Ladies, good night. Gentlemen, we give the grand assault tomorrow; when I promise thee, Wilfrid, thy banner shall not be before mine.”— And the King, giving his arm to her Majesty, retired into the private pavilion.

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