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

Chapter V.

Ivanhoe to the Rescue.

The rascally manner in which the chicken-livered successor of Richard of the Lion-heart conducted himself to all parties, to his relatives, his nobles, and his people, is a matter notorious, and set forth clearly in the Historic Page: hence, although nothing, except perhaps success, can, in my opinion, excuse disaffection to the sovereign, or appearance in armed rebellion against him, the loyal reader will make allowance for two of the principal personages of this narrative, who will have to appear in the present chapter in the odious character of rebels to their lord and king. It must be remembered, in partial exculpation of the fault of Athelstane and Rowena, (a fault for which they were bitterly punished, as you shall presently hear,) that the monarch exasperated his subjects in a variety of ways — that before he murdered his royal nephew, Prince Arthur, there was a great question whether he was the rightful king of England at all — that his behavior as an uncle, and a family man, was likely to wound the feelings of any lady and mother — finally, that there were palliations for the conduct of Rowena and Ivanhoe, which it now becomes our duty to relate.

When his Majesty destroyed Prince Arthur, the Lady Rowena, who was one of the ladies of honor to the Queen, gave up her place at court at once, and retired to her castle of Rotherwood. Expressions made use of by her, and derogatory to the character of the sovereign, were carried to the monarch’s ears, by some of those parasites, doubtless, by whom it is the curse of kings to be attended; and John swore, by St. Peter’s teeth, that he would be revenged upon the haughty Saxon lady — a kind of oath which, though he did not trouble himself about all other oaths, he was never known to break. It was not for some years after he had registered this vow, that he was enabled to keep it.

Had Ivanhoe been present at Ronen, when the King meditated his horrid designs against his nephew, there is little doubt that Sir Wilfrid would have prevented them, and rescued the boy: for Ivanhoe was, as we need scarcely say, a hero of romance; and it is the custom and duty of all gentlemen of that profession to be present on all occasions of historic interest, to be engaged in all conspiracies, royal interviews, and remarkable occurrences: and hence Sir Wilfrid would certainly have rescued the young Prince, had he been anywhere in the neighborhood of Rouen, where the foul tragedy occurred. But he was a couple of hundred leagues off, at Chalus, when the circumstance happened; tied down in his bed as crazy as a Bedlamite, and raving ceaselessly in the Hebrew tongue (which he had caught up during a previous illness in which he was tended by a maiden of that nation) about a certain Rebecca Ben Isaacs, of whom, being a married man, he never would have thought, had he been in his sound senses. During this delirium, what were politics to him, or he to politics? King John or King Arthur was entirely indifferent to a man who announced to his nurse-tenders, the good hermits of Chalus before mentioned, that he was the Marquis of Jericho, and about to marry Rebecca the Queen of Sheba. In a word, he only heard of what had occurred when he reached England, and his senses were restored to him. Whether was he happier, sound of brain and entirely miserable, (as any man would be who found so admirable a wife as Rowena married again,) or perfectly crazy, the husband of the beautiful Rebecca? I don’t know which he liked best.

Howbeit the conduct of King John inspired Sir Wilfrid with so thorough a detestation of that sovereign, that he never could be brought to take service under him; to get himself presented at St. James’s, or in any way to acknowledge, but by stern acquiescence, the authority of the sanguinary successor of his beloved King Richard. It was Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, I need scarcely say, who got the Barons of England to league together and extort from the king that famous instrument and palladium of our liberties at present in the British Museum, Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury — the Magna Charta. His name does not naturally appear in the list of Barons, because he was only a knight, and a knight in disguise too: nor does Athelstane’s signature figure on that document. Athelstane, in the first place, could not write; nor did he care a pennypiece about politics, so long as he could drink his wine at home undisturbed, and have his hunting and shooting in quiet.

It was not until the King wanted to interfere with the sport of every gentleman in England (as we know by reference to the Historic Page that this odious monarch did), that Athelstane broke out into open rebellion, along with several Yorkshire squires and noblemen. It is recorded of the King, that he forbade every man to hunt his own deer; and, in order to secure an obedience to his orders, this Herod of a monarch wanted to secure the eldest sons of all the nobility and gentry, as hostages for the good behavior of their parents.

Athelstane was anxious about his game — Rowena was anxious about her son. The former swore that he would hunt his deer in spite of all Norman tyrants — the latter asked, should she give up her boy to the ruffian who had murdered his own nephew?13 The speeches of both were brought to the King at York; and, furious, he ordered an instant attack upon Rotherwood, and that the lord and lady of that castle should be brought before him dead or alive.

13 See Hume, Giraldus Cambrensis, The Monk of Croyland, and Pinnock’s Catechism.

Ah, where was Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, the unconquerable champion, to defend the castle against the royal party? A few thrusts from his lance would have spitted the leading warriors of the King’s host: a few cuts from his sword would have put John’s forces to rout. But the lance and sword of Ivanhoe were idle on this occasion. “No, be hanged to me!” said the knight, bitterly, “THIS is a quarrel in which I can’t interfere. Common politeness forbids. Let yonder ale-swilling Athelstane defend his — ha, ha — WIFE; and my Lady Rowena guard her — ha, ha, ha — SON.” And he laughed wildly and madly; and the sarcastic, way in which he choked and gurgled out the words “wife” and “son” would have made you shudder to hear.

When he heard, however, that, on the fourth day of the siege, Athelstane had been slain by a cannon-ball, (and this time for good, and not to come to life again as he had done before,) and that the widow (if so the innocent bigamist may be called) was conducting the defence of Rotherwood herself with the greatest intrepidity, showing herself upon the walls with her little son, (who bellowed like a bull, and did not like the fighting at all,) pointing the guns and encouraging the garrison in every way — better feelings returned to the bosom of the Knight of Ivanhoe, and summoning his men, he armed himself quickly and determined to go forth to the rescue.

He rode without stopping for two days and two nights in the direction of Rotherwood, with such swiftness and disregard for refreshment, indeed, that his men dropped one by one upon the road, and he arrived alone at the lodge-gate of the park. The windows were smashed; the door stove in; the lodge, a neat little Swiss cottage, with a garden where the pinafores of Mrs. Gurth’s children might have been seen hanging on the gooseberry-bushes in more peaceful times, was now a ghastly heap of smoking ruins: cottage, bushes, pinafores, children lay mangled together, destroyed by the licentious soldiery of an infuriate monarch! Far be it from me to excuse the disobedience of Athelstane and Rowena to their sovereign; but surely, surely this cruelty might have been spared.

Gurth, who was lodge-keeper, was lying dreadfully wounded and expiring at the flaming and violated threshold of his lately picturesque home. A catapult and a couple of mangonels had done his business. The faithful fellow, recognizing his master, who had put up his visor and forgotten his wig and spectacles in the agitation of the moment, exclaimed, “Sir Wilfrid! my dear master — praised be St. Waltheof — there may be yet time — my beloved mistr — master Athelst . . .” He sank back, and never spoke again.

Ivanhoe spurred on his horse Bavieca madly up the chestnut avenue. The castle was before him; the western tower was in flames; the besiegers were pressing at the southern gate; Athelstane’s banner, the bull rampant, was still on the northern bartizan. “An Ivanhoe, an Ivanhoe!” he bellowed out, with a shout that overcame all the din of battle: “Nostre Dame a la rescousse!” And to hurl his lance through the midriff of Reginald de Bracy, who was commanding the assault — who fell howling with anguish — to wave his battle-axe over his own head, and cut off those of thirteen men-at-arms, was the work of an instant. “An Ivanhoe, an Ivanhoe!” he still shouted, and down went a man as sure as he said “hoe!”

“Ivanhoe! Ivanhoe!” a shrill voice cried from the top of the northern bartizan. Ivanhoe knew it.

“Rowena my love, I come!” he roared on his part. “Villains! touch but a hair of her head, and I . . .”

Here, with a sudden plunge and a squeal of agony, Bavieca sprang forward wildly, and fell as wildly on her back, rolling over and over upon the knight. All was dark before him; his brain reeled; it whizzed; something came crashing down on his forehead. St. Waltheof and all the saints of the Saxon calendar protect the knight! . . .

When he came to himself, Wamba and the lieutenant of his lances were leaning over him with a bottle of the hermit’s elixir. “We arrived here the day after the battle,” said the fool; “marry, I have a knack of that.”

“Your worship rode so deucedly quick, there was no keeping up with your worship,” said the lieutenant.

“The day — after — the bat —” groaned Ivanhoe. “Where is the Lady Rowena?”

“The castle has been taken and sacked,” the lieutenant said, and pointed to what once WAS Rotherwood, but was now only a heap of smoking ruins. Not a tower was left, not a roof, not a floor, not a single human being! Everything was flame and ruin, smash and murther!

Of course Ivanhoe fell back fainting again among the ninety-seven men-at-arms whom he had slain; and it was not until Wamba had applied a second, and uncommonly strong dose of the elixir that he came to life again. The good knight was, however, from long practice, so accustomed to the severest wounds, that he bore them far more easily than common folk, and thus was enabled to reach York upon a litter, which his men constructed for him, with tolerable ease.

Rumor had as usual advanced before him; and he heard at the hotel where he stopped, what had been the issue of the affair at Rotherwood. A minute or two after his horse was stabbed, and Ivanhoe knocked down, the western bartizan was taken by the storming-party which invested it, and every soul slain, except Rowena and her boy; who were tied upon horses and carried away, under a secure guard, to one of the King’s castles — nobody knew whither: and Ivanhoe was recommended by the hotel-keeper (whose house he had used in former times) to reassume his wig and spectacles, and not call himself by his own name any more, lest some of the King’s people should lay hands on him. However, as he had killed everybody round about him, there was but little danger of his discovery; and the Knight of the Spectacles, as he was called, went about York quite unmolested, and at liberty to attend to his own affairs.

We wish to be brief in narrating this part of the gallant hero’s existence; for his life was one of feeling rather than affection, and the description of mere sentiment is considered by many well-informed persons to be tedious. What WERE his sentiments now, it may be asked, under the peculiar position in which he found himself? He had done his duty by Rowena, certainly: no man could say otherwise. But as for being in love with her any more, after what had occurred, that was a different question. Well, come what would, he was determined still to continue doing his duty by her; — but as she was whisked away the deuce knew whither, how could he do anything? So he resigned himself to the fact that she was thus whisked away.

He, of course, sent emissaries about the country to endeavor to find out where Rowena was: but these came back without any sort of intelligence; and it was remarked, that he still remained in a perfect state of resignation. He remained in this condition for a year, or more; and it was said that he was becoming more cheerful, and he certainly was growing rather fat. The Knight of the Spectacles was voted an agreeable man in a grave way; and gave some very elegant, though quiet, parties, and was received in the best society of York.

It was just at assize-time, the lawyers and barristers had arrived, and the town was unusually gay; when, one morning, the attorney, whom we have mentioned as Sir Wilfrid’s man of business, and a most respectable man, called upon his gallant client at his lodgings, and said he had a communication of importance to make. Having to communicate with a client of rank, who was condemned to be hanged for forgery, Sir Roger de Backbite, the attorney said, he had been to visit that party in the condemned cell; and on the way through the yard, and through the bars of another cell, had seen and recognized an old acquaintance of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe — and the lawyer held him out, with a particular look, a note, written on a piece of whity-brown paper.

What were Ivanhoe’s sensations when he recognized the handwriting of Rowena! — he tremblingly dashed open the billet, and read as follows:—

“MY DEAREST IVANHOE — For I am thine now as erst, and my first love was ever — ever dear to me. Have I been near thee dying for a whole year, and didst thou make no effort to rescue thy Rowena? Have ye given to others — I mention not their name nor their odious creed — the heart that ought to be mine? I send thee my forgiveness from my dying pallet of straw. — I forgive thee the insults I have received, the cold and hunger I have endured, the failing health of my boy, the bitterness of my prison, thy infatuation about that Jewess, which made our married life miserable, and which caused thee, I am sure, to go abroad to look after her. I forgive thee all my wrongs, and fain would bid thee farewell. Mr. Smith hath gained over my gaoler — he will tell thee how I may see thee. Come and console my last hour by promising that thou wilt care for my boy — HIS boy who fell like a hero (when thou wert absent) combating by the side of ROWENA.”

The reader may consult his own feelings, and say whether Ivanhoe was likely to be pleased or not by this letter: however, he inquired of Mr. Smith, the solicitor, what was the plan which that gentleman had devised for the introduction to Lady Rowena, and was informed that he was to get a barrister’s gown and wig, when the gaoler would introduce him into the interior of the prison. These decorations, knowing several gentlemen of the Northern Circuit, Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe easily procured, and with feelings of no small trepidation, reached the cell, where, for the space of a year, poor Rowena had been immured.

If any person have a doubt of the correctness, of the historical exactness of this narrative, I refer him to the “Biographie Universelle” (article Jean sans Terre), which says, “La femme d’un baron auquel on vint demander son fils, repondit, ‘Le roi pense-t-il que je confierai mon fils a un homme qui a egorge son neveu de sa propre main?’ Jean fit enlever la mere et l’enfant, et la laissa MOURIR DE FAIM dans les cachots.”

I picture to myself, with a painful sympathy, Rowena undergoing this disagreeable sentence. All her virtues, her resolution, her chaste energy and perseverance, shine with redoubled lustre, and, for the first time since the commencement of the history, I feel that I am partially reconciled to her. The weary year passes — she grows weaker and more languid, thinner and thinner! At length Ivanhoe, in the disguise of a barrister of the Northern Circuit, is introduced to her cell, and finds his lady in the last stage of exhaustion, on the straw of her dungeon, with her little boy in her arms. She has preserved his life at the expense of her own, giving him the whole of the pittance which her gaolers allowed her, and perishing herself of inanition.

There is a scene! I feel as if I had made it up, as it were, with this lady, and that we part in peace, in consequence of my providing her with so sublime a death-bed. Fancy Ivanhoe’s entrance — their recognition — the faint blush upon her worn features — the pathetic way in which she gives little Cedric in charge to him, and his promises of protection.

“Wilfrid, my early loved,” slowly gasped she, removing her gray hair from her furrowed temples, and gazing on her boy fondly, as he nestled on Ivanhoe’s knee —“promise me, by St. Waltheof of Templestowe — promise me one boon!”

“I do,” said Ivanhoe, clasping the boy, and thinking it was to that little innocent the promise was intended to apply.

“By St. Waltheof?”

“By St. Waltheof!”

“Promise me, then,” gasped Rowena, staring wildly at him, “that you never will marry a Jewess?”

“By St. Waltheof,” cried Ivanhoe, “this is too much, Rowena!”— But he felt his hand grasped for a moment, the nerves then relaxed, the pale lips ceased to quiver — she was no more!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00