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

Chapter III.

St. George for England.

Whilst the royal Richard and his court were feasting in the camp outside the walls of Chalus, they of the castle were in the most miserable plight that may be conceived. Hunger, as well as the fierce assaults of the besiegers, had made dire ravages in the place. The garrison’s provisions of corn and cattle, their very horses, dogs, and donkeys had been eaten up — so that it might well be said by Wamba “that famine, as well as slaughter, had THINNED the garrison.” When the men of Chalus came on the walls to defend it against the scaling-parties of King Richard, they were like so many skeletons in armor; they could hardly pull their bowstrings at last, or pitch down stones on the heads of his Majesty’s party, so weak had their arms become; and the gigantic Count of Chalus — a warrior as redoubtable for his size and strength as Richard Plantagenet himself — was scarcely able to lift up his battle-axe upon the day of that last assault, when Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe ran him through the — but we are advancing matters.

What should prevent me from describing the agonies of hunger which the Count (a man of large appetite) suffered in company with his heroic sons and garrison? — Nothing, but that Dante has already done the business in the notorious history of Count Ugolino; so that my efforts might be considered as mere imitations. Why should I not, if I were minded to revel in horrifying details, show you how the famished garrison drew lots, and ate themselves during the siege; and how the unlucky lot falling upon the Countess of Chalus, that heroic woman, taking an affectionate leave of her family, caused her large caldron in the castle kitchen to be set a-boiling, had onions, carrots and herbs, pepper and salt made ready, to make a savory soup, as the French like it; and when all things were quite completed, kissed her children, jumped into the caldron from off a kitchen stool, and so was stewed down in her flannel bed-gown? Dear friends, it is not from want of imagination, or from having no turn for the terrible or pathetic, that I spare you these details. I could give you some description that would spoil your dinner and night’s rest, and make your hair stand on end. But why harrow your feelings? Fancy all the tortures and horrors that possibly can occur in a beleaguered and famished castle: fancy the feelings of men who know that no more quarter will be given them than they would get if they were peaceful Hungarian citizens kidnapped and brought to trial by his Majesty the Emperor of Austria; and then let us rush on to the breach and prepare once more to meet the assault of dreadful King Richard and his men.

On the 29th of March in the year 1199, the good King, having copiously partaken of breakfast, caused his trumpets to blow, and advanced with his host upon the breach of the castle of Chalus. Arthur de Pendennis bore his banner; Wilfrid of Ivanhoe fought on the King’s right hand. Molyneux, Bishop of Bullocksmithy, doffed crosier and mitre for that day, and though fat and pursy, panted up the breach with the most resolute spirit, roaring out war-cries and curses, and wielding a prodigious mace of iron, with which he did good execution. Roger de Backbite was forced to come in attendance upon the sovereign, but took care to keep in the rear of his august master, and to shelter behind his huge triangular shield as much as possible. Many lords of note followed the King and bore the ladders; and as they were placed against the wall, the air was perfectly dark with the shower of arrows which the French archers poured out at the besiegers, and the cataract of stones, kettles, bootjacks, chests of drawers, crockery, umbrellas, congreve-rockets, bombshells, bolts and arrows and other missiles which the desperate garrison flung out on the storming-party. The King received a copper coal-scuttle right over his eyes, and a mahogany wardrobe was discharged at his morion, which would have felled an ox, and would have done for the King had not Ivanhoe warded it off skilfully. Still they advanced, the warriors falling around them like grass beneath the scythe of the mower.

The ladders were placed in spite of the hail of death raining round: the King and Ivanhoe were, of course, the first to mount them. Chalus stood in the breach, borrowing strength from despair; and roaring out, “Ha! Plantagenet, St. Barbacue for Chalus!” he dealt the King a crack across the helmet with his battle-axe, which shore off the gilt lion and crown that surmounted the steel cap. The King bent and reeled back; the besiegers were dismayed; the garrison and the Count of Chalus set up a shout of triumph: but it was premature.

As quick as thought Ivanhoe was into the Count with a thrust in tierce, which took him just at the joint of the armor, and ran him through as clean as a spit does a partridge. Uttering a horrid shriek, he fell back writhing; the King recovering staggered up the parapet; the rush of knights followed, and the union-jack was planted triumphantly on the walls, just as Ivanhoe — but we must leave him for a moment.

“Ha, St. Richard! — ha, St. George!” the tremendous voice of the Lion-king was heard over the loudest roar of the onset. At every sweep of his blade a severed head flew over the parapet, a spouting trunk tumbled, bleeding, on the flags of the bartizan. The world hath never seen a warrior equal to that Lion-hearted Plantagenet, as he raged over the keep, his eyes flashing fire through the bars of his morion, snorting and chafing with the hot lust of battle. One by one les enfans de Chalus had fallen; there was only one left at last of all the brave race that had fought round the gallant Count:— only one, and but a boy, a fair-haired boy, a blue-eyed boy! he had been gathering pansies in the fields but yesterday — it was but a few years, and he was a baby in his mother’s arms! What could his puny sword do against the most redoubted blade in Christendom? — and yet Bohemond faced the great champion of England, and met him foot to foot! Turn away, turn away, my dear young friends and kind-hearted ladies! Do not look at that ill-fated poor boy! his blade is crushed into splinters under the axe of the conqueror, and the poor child is beaten to his knee! . . .

“Now, by St. Barbacue of Limoges,” said Bertrand de Gourdon, “the butcher will never strike down yonder lambling! Hold thy hand, Sir King, or, by St. Barbacue —”

Swift as thought the veteran archer raised his arblast to his shoulder, the whizzing bolt fled from the ringing string, and the next moment crashed quivering into the corselet of Plantagenet.

’Twas a luckless shot, Bertrand of Gourdon! Maddened by the pain of the wound, the brute nature of Richard was aroused: his fiendish appetite for blood rose to madness, and grinding his teeth, and with a curse too horrible to mention, the flashing axe of the royal butcher fell down on the blond ringlets of the child, and the children of Chalus were no more! . . .

I just throw this off by way of description, and to show what MIGHT be done if I chose to indulge in this style of composition; but as in the battles which are described by the kindly chronicler, of one of whose works this present masterpiece is professedly a continuation, everything passes off agreeably — the people are slain, but without any unpleasant sensation to the reader; nay, some of the most savage and blood-stained characters of history, such is the indomitable good-humor of the great novelist, become amiable, jovial companions, for whom one has a hearty sympathy — so, if you please, we will have this fighting business at Chalus, and the garrison and honest Bertrand of Gourdon, disposed of; the former, according to the usage of the good old times, having been hung up or murdered to a man, and the latter killed in the manner described by the late Dr. Goldsmith in his History.

As for the Lion-hearted, we all very well know that the shaft of Bertrand de Gourdon put an end to the royal hero — and that from that 29th of March he never robbed nor murdered any more. And we have legends in recondite books of the manner of the King’s death.

“You must die, my son,” said the venerable Walter of Rouen, as Berengaria was carried shrieking from the King’s tent. “Repent, Sir King, and separate yourself from your children!”

“It is ill jesting with a dying man,” replied the King. “Children have I none, my good lord bishop, to inherit after me.”

“Richard of England,” said the archbishop, turning up his fine eyes, “your vices are your children. Ambition is your eldest child, Cruelty is your second child, Luxury is your third child; and you have nourished them from your youth up. Separate yourself from these sinful ones, and prepare your soul, for the hour of departure draweth nigh.”

Violent, wicked, sinful, as he might have been, Richard of England met his death like a Christian man. Peace be to the soul of the brave! When the news came to King Philip of France, he sternly forbade his courtiers to rejoice at the death of his enemy. “It is no matter of joy but of dolor,” he said, “that the bulwark of Christendom and the bravest king of Europe is no more.”

Meanwhile what has become of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, whom we left in the act of rescuing his sovereign by running the Count of Chalus through the body?

As the good knight stooped down to pick his sword out of the corpse of his fallen foe, some one coming behind him suddenly thrust a dagger into his back at a place where his shirt-of-mail was open (for Sir Wilfrid had armed that morning in a hurry, and it was his breast, not his back, that he was accustomed ordinarily to protect); and when poor Wamba came up on the rampart, which he did when the fighting was over — being such a fool that he could not be got to thrust his head into danger for glory’s sake — he found his dear knight with the dagger in his back lying without life upon the body of the Count de Chalus whom he had anon slain.

Ah, what a howl poor Wamba set up when he found his master killed! How he lamented over the corpse of that noble knight and friend! What mattered it to him that Richard the King was borne wounded to his tent, and that Bertrand de Gourdon was flayed alive? At another time the sight of this spectacle might have amused the simple knave; but now all his thoughts were of his lord: so good, so gentle, so kind, so loyal, so frank with the great, so tender to the poor, so truthful of speech, so modest regarding his own merit, so true a gentleman, in a word, that anybody might, with reason, deplore him.

As Wamba opened the dear knight’s corselet, he found a locket round his neck, in which there was some hair; not flaxen like that of my Lady Rowena, who was almost as fair as an Albino, but as black, Wamba thought, as the locks of the Jewish maiden whom the knight had rescued in the lists of Templestowe. A bit of Rowena’s hair was in Sir Wilfrid’s possession, too; but that was in his purse along with his seal of arms, and a couple of groats: for the good knight never kept any money, so generous was he of his largesses when money came in.

Wamba took the purse, and seal, and groats, but he left the locket of hair round his master’s neck, and when he returned to England never said a word about the circumstance. After all, how should he know whose hair it was? It might have been the knight’s grandmother’s hair for aught the fool knew; so he kept his counsel when he brought back the sad news and tokens to the disconsolate widow at Rotherwood.

The poor fellow would never have left the body at all, and indeed sat by it all night, and until the gray of the morning; when, seeing two suspicious-looking characters advancing towards him, he fled in dismay, supposing that they were marauders who were out searching for booty among the dead bodies; and having not the least courage, he fled from these, and tumbled down the breach, and never stopped running as fast as his legs would carry him, until he reached the tent of his late beloved master.

The news of the knight’s demise, it appeared, had been known at his quarters long before; for his servants were gone, and had ridden off on his horses; his chests were plundered: there was not so much as a shirt-collar left in his drawers, and the very bed and blankets had been carried away by these FAITHFUL attendants. Who had slain Ivanhoe? That remains a mystery to the present day; but Roger de Backbite, whose nose he had pulled for defamation, and who was behind him in the assault at Chalus, was seen two years afterwards at the court of King John in an embroidered velvet waistcoat which Rowena could have sworn she had worked for Ivanhoe, and about which the widow would have made some little noise, but that — but that she was no longer a widow.

That she truly deplored the death of her lord cannot be questioned, for she ordered the deepest mourning which any milliner in York could supply, and erected a monument to his memory as big as a minster. But she was a lady of such fine principles, that she did not allow her grief to overmaster her; and an opportunity speedily arising for uniting the two best Saxon families in England, by an alliance between herself and the gentleman who offered himself to her, Rowena sacrificed her inclination to remain single, to her sense of duty; and contracted a second matrimonial engagement.

That Athelstane was the man, I suppose no reader familiar with life, and novels which are a rescript of life, and are all strictly natural and edifying, can for a moment doubt. Cardinal Pandulfo tied the knot for them: and lest there should be any doubt about Ivanhoe’s death (for his body was never sent home after all, nor seen after Wamba ran away from it), his Eminence procured a Papal decree annulling the former marriage, so that Rowena became Mrs. Athelstane with a clear conscience. And who shall be surprised, if she was happier with the stupid and boozy Thane than with the gentle and melancholy Wilfrid? Did women never have a predilection for fools, I should like to know; or fall in love with donkeys, before the time of the amours of Bottom and Titania? Ah! Mary, had you not preferred an ass to a man, would you have married Jack Bray, when a Michael Angelo offered? Ah! Fanny, were you not a woman, would you persist in adoring Tom Hiccups, who beats you, and comes home tipsy from the Club? Yes, Rowena cared a hundred times more about tipsy Athelstane than ever she had done for gentle Ivanhoe, and so great was her infatuation about the former, that she would sit upon his knee in the presence of all her maidens, and let him smoke his cigars in the very drawing-room.

This is the epitaph she caused to be written by Father Drono (who piqued himself upon his Latinity) on the stone commemorating the death of her late lord:—

Hic est Guilfridus, belli dum vixit avidus:
Cum gladio et lancea, Normania et quoque Francia
Verbera dura dabat: per Turcos multum equitabat:
Guilbertum occidit: atque Hierosolyma vidit.
Heu! nunc sub fossa sunt tanti militis ossa,
Uxor Athelstani est conjux castissima Thani.

And this is the translation which the doggerel knave Wamba made of the Latin lines:

“REQUIESCAT.

“Under the stone you behold,
Buried, and coffined, and cold,
Lieth Sir Wilfrid the Bold.

“Always he marched in advance,
Warring in Flanders and France,
Doughty with sword and with lance.

“Famous in Saracen fight,
Rode in his youth the good knight,
Scattering Paynims in flight.

“Brian the Templar untrue,
Fairly in tourney he slew,
Saw Hierusalem too.

“Now he is buried and gone,
Lying beneath the gray stone:
Where shall you find such a one?

“Long time his widow deplored,
Weeping the fate of her lord,
Sadly cut off by the sword.

“When she was eased of her pain,
Came the good Lord Athelstane,
When her ladyship married again.”

Athelstane burst into a loud laugh, when he heard it, at the last line, but Rowena would have had the fool whipped, had not the Thane interceded; and to him, she said, she could refuse nothing.

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