"Holy Abraham!" returned the Jew, "heard man ever such a demand?
Not within the walls of York, ransack my house and that of all my tribe, wilt thou find the tithe of that huge sum of silver."
"Prepare, then," said the Norman, "for a long and lingering death."
And he ordered the slave to make ready the fire.
"See'st thou, Isaac," he said, "the range of bars above that glowing charcoal? On that warm couch shalt thou lie, stripped of thy clothes. One of these slaves shall maintain the fire beneath thee, while another shall anoint thy wretched limbs with oil, lest the roast should burn. Now, choose between such a scorching bed and the payment of a thousand pounds of silver; for, by the head of my father, thou hast no other option."
"So may Abraham, Jacob, and all the fathers of our people assist me," said Isaac; "I cannot make the choice, because I have not the means of satisfying your exorbitant demand."
"Seize him, and strip him, slaves!" said the knight, "and let the fathers of his race assist him if they can."
The assistants stepped forward, and laying hands on the unfortunate man, waited the hardhearted baron's further signal.
The unhappy Jew eyed their savage countenances and that of Front- de-Boeuf, in hope of discovering some symptoms of relenting; and as he looked again at the glowing furnace his resolution at length gave way.
"I will pay!" he said. "That is," he added, after a moment's pause, "I will pay it with the help of my brethren. Let my daughter Rebecca go forth to York, and she will bring the treasure here."
"Thy daughter!" said Front-de-Boeuf, as if surprised. "By heavens!
Isaac, I would I had known of this; I gave the black-browed girl to be a handmaiden to Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, to do as it might please him with her. My word is passed to my comrade in arms; nor would I break it for ten Jews and Jewesses to boot."
The yell which Isaac raised at this unfeeling communication made the vault ring.
"Robber and villain!" he exclaimed, "I will pay thee nothing--not one silver penny will I pay thee--unless my daughter is delivered to me in safety and honour. Do thy worst. Take my life if thou wilt, and say the Jew, amidst his tortures, knew how to disappoint the Christian."
"Strip him, slaves! and chain him down upon the bars," said Front- de-Boeuf.
The Saracens, in obedience to this savage order, had already torn from the feeble and struggling old man his upper garment, and were proceeding totally to disrobe him, when the sound of a bugle, twice winded without the castle, penetrated even to the recesses of the dungeon; and immediately after, loud voices were heard calling for Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. Unwilling to be found engaged in his hellish occupation, the savage baron gave the slaves a signal to restore Isaac's garment, and hastily quitted the dungeon with his attendants.
During the time the unhappy Jew was undergoing his terrible ordeal in the gloomy dungeon, his daughter Rebecca, in her lonely turret, had been exposed to attentions no less unpleasant.
On being left in the secluded cell, she found herself in the presence of an old hag, who kept murmuring to herself a Saxon rhyme, as if to beat time to the spindle at which she was engaged.
As soon as they were alone the old woman addressed the Jewess, telling her that she was once as young and fair as herself, when Front-de-Boeuf, the father of the man who now lorded it in the castle, attacked the place and slew her father and his seven sons, and she became the prey and scorn of the conqueror.
"Is there no help? Are there no means of escape?" said Rebecca.
"Richly, richly would I requite thine aid."
"Think not of it," said the hag, "from hence there is no escape but through the gates of death; and it is late, late," she added shaking her gray head, "ere these open to us. Fare thee well, Jewess!--thou hast to do with them that have neither scruple nor pity." And so saying she left the room, locking the door behind her.
Before long a step was heard on the stair, and the door of the turret-chamber slowly opened, and Brian de Bois-Guilbert entered the room. He commenced to address the Jewess with flattering speeches, saying that he loved her, and that she must now be his.
But Rebecca rejected his proffered love with scorn, protesting that she would proclaim his villainy from one end of Europe to the other. "At least," she said, "those who tremble not at thy crime will hold thee accursed for having so far dishonoured the cross thou wearest as to follow a daughter of my people."
"Thou art keen-witted, Jewess," replied the Templar, well aware of the truth of what she spoke; "but loud must be thy voice of complaint, if it is heard beyond the iron walls of this castle.
One thing only can save thee, Rebecca. Submit to thy fate, embrace our religion, and thou shalt go forth in such state that many a Norman lady shall envy thee thy lot."
"Submit to my fate!" said Rebecca, "and, sacred Heaven! to what fate? Embrace thy religion, and what religion can it be that harbours such a villain? Craven knight! forsworn priest! I spit at thee and I defy thee. The God of Abraham's promise hath opened an escape to His daughter, even from this abyss of infamy!"
As she spoke she threw open the latticed window, and in an instant after stood on the very verge of the parapet outside, with not the slightest screen between her and the tremendous depth below.
Unprepared for such a desperate effort, Bois-Guilbert had time neither to intercept nor to stop her. As he offered to advance, she exclaimed, "Remain where thou art, proud Templar, or at thy choice advance! One foot nearer, and I plunge myself from the precipice; my body shall be crushed out of the very form of humanity upon the stones below ere it become the victim of thy brutality!"
The Templar hesitated, and a resolution which would have never yielded to pity or distress gave way to his admiration for her fortitude. "Come down," he said, "rash girl! I swear by earth, and sea, and sky, I will offer thee no offence. Many a law, many a commandment have I broken, but my word never."
"Thus far," said Rebecca, "I will trust thee;" and she descended from the verge of the battlement, but remained standing close by one of the embrasures. "Here," she said, "I take my stand. If thou shalt attempt to diminish by one step the distance now between us, thou shalt see that the Jewish maiden will rather trust her soul with God than her honour to the Templar."
As she spoke, the bugle was heard to sound, announcing that the presence of the knight was required in another part of the castle; and as he instantly obeyed the summons, Rebecca found herself once more alone.
When the Templar reached the hall of the castle, he found De Bracy there already. They were soon after joined by Front-de-Boeuf.
"Let us see the cause of this cursed clamour," said Front-de- Boeuf. "Here is a letter, and if I mistake not, it is in Saxon."
The Templar took the paper from his hand and read it. It was a demand to surrender the prisoners within one hour, failing which the castle would be instantly besieged; and it was signed at the end by Wamba and Gurth, by the Black Knight and Locksley.
The answer which was returned from the castle to this missive announced that the prisoners would not be given up; but that permission would be given to a man of religion to come to receive their dying confession, as it had been determined to execute them before noon.
When this reply was brought back to the party of the Black Knight, a hurried consultation was held as to what they should do. There being no churchman amongst them, and as no one else seemed willing to undertake the risk of trusting himself within the castle, Wamba, the jester, was selected for the office. He was soon muffled in his religious disguise; and imitating the solemn and stately deportment of a friar, he departed to execute his mission.
As he approached the castle gate, he was at once admitted, and shortly after was ushered into the apartment where Cedric and Athelstane were confined; and the three were left alone. It was not long before Cedric recognised the voice of his jester. The faithful servant at once suggested that his master should change garments with him, and so make his escape. But it required the strong pressure of both Wamba and Athelstane before Cedric would consent. At length he yielded, and the exchange of dress was accomplished. He left the apartment saying that he would rescue his friends, or return and die along with them.
In a low-arched and dusky passage by which Cedric endeavoured to work his way to the hall, he was met by Urfried, the old crone of the tower.
"Come this way, father," she said to him; "thou art a stranger, and canst not leave the castle without a guide. Come hither, for I would speak with thee."
So saying, she proceeded to conduct the unwilling Cedric into a small apartment, the door of which she heedfully secured. "Thou art a Saxon, father," she said to him; "the sounds of my native language are sweet to mine ears, though seldom heard for many years."
She then told him the story of her unhappy and degraded life, and how she was once the daughter of the noble thane of Torquilstone.
"Thou the daughter of Torquil Wolfganger!" said Cedric; "thou-- thou, the daughter of my father's friend and companion in arms!"
"Thy father's friend!" echoed Urfried; "then Cedric, called the Saxon, stands before me. But why this religious dress?"
"It matters not who I am," said Cedric; "proceed, unhappy woman, unhappy Ulrica, I should say, for thou canst be none other, with thy tale of horror and guilt. Wretched woman!" he exclaimed, as she concluded her miserable history, "so thou hast lived, when all believed thee murdered; hast lived to merit our hate and execration; lived to unite thyself with the vile tyrant who slew thy nearest and dearest!"
"I hated him with all my soul," replied Ulrica; "I also have had my hours of vengeance; I have fomented the quarrels of our foes; I have seen their blood flow, and heard their dying groans; I have seen my oppressor fall at his own board by the hand of his own son. Yet here I dwelt, till age, premature age, has stamped its ghastly features on my countenance, scorned and insulted where I was once obeyed. Thou art the first I have seen for twenty years by whom God was feared or man regarded; and dost thou bid me despair?"
"I bid thee repent," said Cedric; "but I cannot, I will not, longer abide with thee."
"Stay yet a moment!" said Ulrica. "Revenge henceforth shall possess me wholly, and thou thyself shalt say that, whatever was the life of Ulrica, her death well became the daughter of the noble Torquil. Hasten to lead your forces to the attack, and when thou shalt see a red flag wave from the eastern turret, press the Normans hard; they will have enough to do within. Begone, I pray thee; follow thine own fate, and leave me to mine."
As she spoke she vanished through a private door, and Front-de- Boeuf entered the apartment.
"Thy penitents, father," he said, "have made a long shrift; but come, follow me through this passage, that I may dismiss thee by the postern."
As Cedric was leaving the castle, the Norman gave him a note to carry to Philip de Malvoisin, begging him to send assistance with all the speed he could. He promised the friar a large reward for doing the errand, and as they parted at the postern door he thrust into Cedric's reluctant hand a piece of gold, adding, "Remember, I will flay off thy cowl and skin if thou failest in thy purpose."
When Front-de-Boeuf rejoined his friends and found out the trick which had been played upon him, and that Cedric had escaped, his rage was unbounded, and it was only on De Bracy interceding for him that he consented to spare the life of the poor jester.
Before long the inmates of the castle had other things to occupy them. The enemy was announced to be under their very walls; and each knight repaired hastily to his post, and at the head of the few followers whom they were able to muster they awaited with calm determination the threatened assault.