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

Chapter VII.

The End of the Performance.

In a short time the terrible Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe had killed off so many of the Moors, that though those unbelieving miscreants poured continual reinforcements into Spain from Barbary, they could make no head against the Christian forces, and in fact came into battle quite discouraged at the notion of meeting the dreadful silent knight. It was commonly believed amongst them, that the famous Malek Ric, Richard of England, the conqueror of Saladin, had come to life again, and was battling in the Spanish hosts — that this, his second life, was a charmed one, and his body inaccessible to blow of scimitar or thrust of spear — that after battle he ate the hearts and drank the blood of many young Moors for his supper: a thousand wild legends were told of Ivanhoe, indeed, so that the Morisco warriors came half vanquished into the field, and fell an easy prey to the Spaniards, who cut away among them without mercy. And although none of the Spanish historians whom I have consulted make mention of Sir Wilfrid as the real author of the numerous triumphs which now graced the arms of the good cause, this is not in the least to be wondered at, in a nation that has always been notorious for bragging, and for the non-payment of their debts of gratitude as of their other obligations, and that writes histories of the Peninsular war with the Emperor Napoleon, without making the slightest mention of his Grace the Duke of Wellington, or of the part taken by BRITISH VALOR in that transaction. Well, it must be confessed, on the other hand, that we brag enough of our fathers’ feats in those campaigns: but this is not the subject at present under consideration.

To be brief, Ivanhoe made such short work with the unbelievers, that the monarch of Aragon, King Don Jayme, saw himself speedily enabled to besiege the city of Valencia, the last stronghold which the Moors had in his dominions, and garrisoned by many thousands of those infidels under the command of their King Aboo Abdallah Mahommed, son of Yakoobal-Mansoor. The Arabian historian El Makary gives a full account of the military precautions taken by Aboo Abdallah to defend his city; but as I do not wish to make a parade of my learning, or to write a costume novel, I shall pretermit any description of the city under its Moorish governors.

Besides the Turks who inhabited it, there dwelt within its walls great store of those of the Hebrew nation, who were always protected by the Moors during their unbelieving reign in Spain; and who were, as we very well know, the chief physicians, the chief bankers, the chief statesmen, the chief artists and musicians, the chief everything, under the Moorish kings. Thus it is not surprising that the Hebrews, having their money, their liberty, their teeth, their lives, secure under the Mahometan domination, should infinitely prefer it to the Christian sway; beneath which they were liable to be deprived of every one of these benefits.

Among these Hebrews of Valencia, lived a very ancient Israelite — no other than Isaac of York before mentioned, who came into Spain with his daughter, soon after Ivanhoe’s marriage, in the third volume of the first part of this history. Isaac was respected by his people for the money which he possessed, and his daughter for her admirable good qualities, her beauty, her charities, and her remarkable medical skill.

The young Emir Aboo Abdallah was so struck by her charms, that though she was considerably older than his Highness, he offered to marry her, and install her as Number 1 of his wives; and Isaac of York would not have objected to the union, (for such mixed marriages were not uncommon between the Hebrews and Moors in those days,) but Rebecca firmly yet respectfully declined the proposals of the prince, saying that it was impossible she should unite herself with a man of a creed different to her own.

Although Isaac was, probably, not over-well pleased at losing this chance of being father-inlaw to a royal highness, yet as he passed among his people for a very strict character, and there were in his family several rabbis of great reputation and severity of conduct, the old gentleman was silenced by this objection of Rebecca’s, and the young lady herself applauded by her relatives for her resolute behavior. She took their congratulations in a very frigid manner, and said that it was her wish not to marry at all, but to devote herself to the practice of medicine altogether, and to helping the sick and needy of her people. Indeed, although she did not go to any public meetings, she was as benevolent a creature as the world ever saw: the poor blessed her wherever they knew her, and many benefited by her who guessed not whence her gentle bounty came.

But there are men in Jewry who admire beauty, and, as I have even heard, appreciate money too, and Rebecca had such a quantity of both, that all the most desirable bachelors of the people were ready to bid for her. Ambassadors came from all quarters to propose for her. Her own uncle, the venerable Ben Solomons, with a beard as long as a cashmere goat’s, and a reputation for learning and piety which still lives in his nation, quarrelled with his son Moses, the red-haired diamond-merchant of Trebizond, and his son Simeon, the bald bill-broker of Bagdad, each putting in a claim for their cousin. Ben Minories came from London and knelt at her feet; Ben Jochanan arrived from Paris, and thought to dazzle her with the latest waistcoats from the Palais Royal; and Ben Jonah brought her a present of Dutch herrings, and besought her to come back and be Mrs. Ben Jonah at the Hague.

Rebecca temporized as best she might. She thought her uncle was too old. She besought dear Moses and dear Simeon not to quarrel with each other, and offend their father by pressing their suit. Ben Minories from London, she said, was too young, and Jochanan from Paris, she pointed out to Isaac of York, must be a spendthrift, or he would not wear those absurd waistcoats. As for Ben Jonah, she said, she could not bear the notion of tobacco and Dutch herrings: she wished to stay with her papa, her dear papa. In fine, she invented a thousand excuses for delay, and it was plain that marriage was odious to her. The only man whom she received with anything like favor, was young Bevis Marks of London, with whom she was very familiar. But Bevis had come to her with a certain token that had been given to him by an English knight, who saved him from a fagot to which the ferocious Hospitaller Folko of Heydenbraten was about to condemn him. It was but a ring, with an emerald in it, that Bevis knew to be sham, and not worth a groat. Rebecca knew about the value of jewels too; but ah! she valued this one more than all the diamonds in Prester John’s turban. She kissed it; she cried over it; she wore it in her bosom always and when she knelt down at night and morning, she held it between her folded hands on her neck. . . . Young Bevis Marks went away finally no better off than the others; the rascal sold to the King of France a handsome ruby, the very size of the bit of glass in Rebecca’s ring; but he always said he would rather have had her than ten thousand pounds: and very likely he would, for it was known she would at once have a plum to her fortune.

These delays, however, could not continue for ever; and at a great family meeting held at Passover-time, Rebecca was solemnly ordered to choose a husband out of the gentlemen there present; her aunts pointing out the great kindness which had been shown to her by her father, in permitting her to choose for herself. One aunt was of the Solomon faction, another aunt took Simeon’s side, a third most venerable old lady — the head of the family, and a hundred and forty-four years of age — was ready to pronounce a curse upon her, and cast her out, unless she married before the month was over. All the jewelled heads of all the old ladies in council, all the beards of all the family, wagged against her: it must have been an awful sight to witness.

At last, then, Rebecca was forced to speak. “Kinsmen!” she said, turning pale, “when the Prince Abou Abdil asked me in marriage, I told you I would not wed but with one of my own faith.”

“She has turned Turk,” screamed out the ladies. “She wants to be a princess, and has turned Turk,” roared the rabbis.

“Well, well,” said Isaac, in rather an appeased tone, “let us hear what the poor girl has got to say. Do you want to marry his royal highness, Rebecca? Say the word, yes or no.”

Another groan burst from the rabbis — they cried, shrieked, chattered, gesticulated, furious to lose such a prize; as were the women, that she should reign over them a second Esther.

“Silence,” cried out Isaac; “let the girl speak. Speak boldly, Rebecca dear, there’s a good girl.”

Rebecca was as pale as a stone. She folded her arms on her breast, and felt the ring there. She looked round all the assembly, and then at Isaac. “Father,” she said, in a thrilling low steady voice, “I am not of your religion — I am not of the Prince Boabdil’s religion — I— I am of HIS religion.”

“His! whose, in the name of Moses, girl?” cried Isaac.

Rebecca clasped her hands on her beating chest and looked round with dauntless eyes. “Of his,” she said, “who saved my life and your honor: of my dear, dear champion’s. I never can be his, but I will be no other’s. Give my money to my kinsmen; it is that they long for. Take the dross, Simeon and Solomon, Jonah and Jochanan, and divide it among you, and leave me. I will never be yours, I tell you, never. Do you think, after knowing him and hearing him speak — after watching him wounded on his pillow, and glorious in battle” (her eyes melted and kindled again as she spoke these words), “I can mate with such as you? Go. Leave me to myself. I am none of yours. I love him — I love him. Fate divides us — long, long miles separate us; and I know we may never meet again. But I love and bless him always. Yes, always. My prayers are his; my faith is his. Yes, my faith is your faith, Wilfrid — Wilfrid! I have no kindred more — I am a Christian!”

At this last word there was such a row in the assembly, as my feeble pen would in vain endeavor to depict. Old Isaac staggered back in a fit, and nobody took the least notice of him. Groans, curses, yells of men, shrieks of women, filled the room with such a furious jabbering, as might have appalled any heart less stout than Rebecca’s; but that brave woman was prepared for all; expecting, and perhaps hoping, that death would be her instant lot. There was but one creature who pitied her, and that was her cousin and father’s clerk, little Ben Davids, who was but thirteen, and had only just begun to carry a bag, and whose crying and boo-hooing, as she finished speaking, was drowned in the screams and maledictions of the elder Israelites. Ben Davids was madly in love with his cousin (as boys often are with ladies of twice their age), and he had presence of mind suddenly to knock over the large brazen lamp on the table, which illuminated the angry conclave; then, whispering to Rebecca to go up to her own room and lock herself in, or they would kill her else, he took her hand and led her out.

From that day she disappeared from among her people. The poor and the wretched missed her, and asked for her in vain. Had any violence been done to her, the poorer Jews would have risen and put all Isaac’s family to death; and besides, her old flame, Prince Boabdil, would have also been exceedingly wrathful. She was not killed then, but, so to speak, buried alive, and locked up in Isaac’s back-kitchen: an apartment into which scarcely any light entered, and where she was fed upon scanty portions of the most mouldy bread and water. Little Ben Davids was the only person who visited her, and her sole consolation was to talk to him about Ivanhoe, and how good and how gentle he was; how brave and how true; and how he slew the tremendous knight of the Templars, and how he married a lady whom Rebecca scarcely thought worthy of him, but with whom she prayed he might be happy; and of what color his eyes were, and what were the arms on his shield — viz, a tree with the word “Desdichado” written underneath, &c. &c. &c.: all which talk would not have interested little Davids, had it come from anybody else’s mouth, but to which he never tired of listening as it fell from her sweet lips.

So, in fact, when old Isaac of York came to negotiate with Don Beltran de Cuchilla for the ransom of the Alfaqui’s daughter of Xixona, our dearest Rebecca was no more dead than you and I; and it was in his rage and fury against Ivanhoe that Isaac told that cavalier the falsehood which caused the knight so much pain and such a prodigious deal of bloodshed to the Moors: and who knows, trivial as it may seem, whether it was not that very circumstance which caused the destruction in Spain of the Moorish power?

Although Isaac, we may be sure, never told his daughter that Ivanhoe had cast up again, yet Master Ben Davids did, who heard it from his employer; and he saved Rebecca’s life by communicating the intelligence, for the poor thing would have infallibly perished but for this good news. She had now been in prison four years three months and twenty-four days, during which time she had partaken of nothing but bread and water (except such occasional tit-bits as Davids could bring her — and these were few indeed; for old Isaac was always a curmudgeon, and seldom had more than a pair of eggs for his own and Davids’ dinner); and she was languishing away, when the news came suddenly to revive her. Then, though in the darkness you could not see her cheeks, they began to bloom again: then her heart began to beat and her blood to flow, and she kissed the ring on her neck a thousand times a day at least; and her constant question was, “Ben Davids! Ben Davids! when is he coming to besiege Valencia?” She knew he would come: and, indeed, the Christians were encamped before the town ere a month was over.

***

And now, my dear boys and girls, I think I perceive behind that dark scene of the back-kitchen (which is just a simple flat, painted stone-color, that shifts in a minute,) bright streaks of light flashing out, as though they were preparing a most brilliant, gorgeous, and altogether dazzling illumination, with effects never before attempted on any stage. Yes, the fairy in the pretty pink tights and spangled muslin is getting into the brilliant revolving chariot of the realms of bliss. — Yes, most of the fiddlers and trumpeters have gone round from the orchestra to join in the grand triumphal procession, where the whole strength of the company is already assembled, arrayed in costumes of Moorish and Christian chivalry, to celebrate the “Terrible Escalade,” the “Rescue of Virtuous Innocence”— the “Grand Entry of the Christians into Valencia”—“Appearance of the Fairy Day-Star,” and “Unexampled displays of pyrotechnic festivity.” Do you not, I say, perceive that we are come to the end of our history; and, after a quantity of rapid and terrific fighting, brilliant change of scenery, and songs, appropriate or otherwise, are bringing our hero and heroine together? Who wants a long scene at the last? Mammas are putting the girls’ cloaks and boas on; papas have gone out to look for the carriage, and left the box-door swinging open, and letting in the cold air: if there WERE any stage-conversation, you could not hear it, for the scuffling of the people who are leaving the pit. See, the orange-women are preparing to retire. To-morrow their play-bills will be as so much waste-paper — so will some of our masterpieces, woe is me: but lo! here we come to Scene the last, and Valencia is besieged and captured by the Christians.

Who is the first on the wall, and who hurls down the green standard of the Prophet? Who chops off the head of the Emir Aboo What-d’ye-call’im, just as the latter has cut over the cruel Don Beltran de Cuchillay &c.? Who, attracted to the Jewish quarter by the shrieks of the inhabitants who are being slain by the Moorish soldiery, and by a little boy by the name of Ben Davids, who recognizes the knight by his shield, finds Isaac of York egorge on a threshold, and clasping a large back-kitchen key? Who but Ivanhoe — who but Wilfrid? “An Ivanhoe to the rescue,” he bellows out; he has heard that news from little Ben Davids which makes him sing. And who is it that comes out of the house — trembling — panting — with her arms out — in a white dress — with her hair down — who is it but dear Rebecca? Look, they rush together, and Master Wamba is waving an immense banner over them, and knocks down a circumambient Jew with a ham, which he happens to have in his pocket. . . . As for Rebecca, now her head is laid upon Ivanhoe’s heart, I shall not ask to hear what she is whispering, or describe further that scene of meeting; though I declare I am quite affected when I think of it. Indeed I have thought of it any time these five-and-twenty years — ever since, as a boy at school, I commenced the noble study of novels — ever since the day when, lying on sunny slopes of half-holidays, the fair chivalrous figures and beautiful shapes of knights and ladies were visible to me — ever since I grew to love Rebecca, that sweetest creature of the poet’s fancy, and longed to see her righted.

That she and Ivanhoe were married, follows of course; for Rowena’s promise extorted from him was, that he would never wed a Jewess, and a better Christian than Rebecca now was never said her catechism. Married I am sure they were, and adopted little Cedric; but I don’t think they had any other children, or were subsequently very boisterously happy. Of some sort of happiness melancholy is a characteristic, and I think these were a solemn pair, and died rather early.

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