|Vol. I, No. 11
Shebat 5604, February 1844
A Tale of the Jews in England.
It was a dark and stormy evening, and Neela sat in the little chamber in the castle to which she and her mother had been removed by the baron, to secure them from fresh attempts on the part of Leslie, watching the feverish and unquiet slumbers of her dying parent. She was alone, for not all the commands of the baron could induce any of his lady's attendants to afford assistance to the unfortunate Jewesses. They considered his interposition as the effect of witchcraft, and expected to see Neela and Naomi carried away by the Evil One before the dawn of day.
As the wind shook the little casement, it awakened the sleeper, and she feebly murmured her daughter's name, when in a moment the anxious watcher was by her side. The mother partly raised herself, and with a trembling hand put back the hair from Neela's white brow, while she addressed her thus:—
"I would bless thee, my Neela, for my moments are numbered, and the death-dews are already on my brow. Fain would I linger a little longer for thy sake in this world of suffering; but the decree of the Highest hath gone forth, and it may not be. It is sad to see thee thus, my fair child, alone with thy dying parent;—none to cheer thee in the hour of affliction,—none to whisper hope amid thy sorrowing. But there is One who is the Father of the fatherless, who watches over the orphan's fate, and to Him I consign thee! I had hoped to see the bridal veil upon thine head, my best beloved,—to have supported thy trembling form beneath the nuptial canopy; and, in resigning thee to one who hath loved thee well and long, I could have gone down to the grave without a sigh. But His will be done! This is a bitter and unlooked-for trial for thee, my child, and thy lot will be lonely when I am gone;—but there thou wilt find consolation,"—pointing to the prayer-book which lay on the table—"pray with me, my child, that though I die far from my kindred and my people, the last sound that greets my ear may be the praises of the Lord!" Repressing by a strong effort all outward signs of emotion, Neela opened the book, and commenced reading, in a faltering voice, the prayer for the dying.
Naomi's lips moved, but she spake not, and the poor girl read on, though her eyes were filled with tears, and she could scarcely see the words. Gradually, however, her anguish mastered her resolution, and the book fell from her hand. At that moment a flash of lightning illuminated the little apartment, and its blue light played around the features—of the dead.
It is an awful thing to gaze upon the glazed eye, the blue lips, and stiffening limbs; when no tie of consanguinity attaches us to the departed; but how much more so must it be to the orphan who watches alone at the midnight hour, and by the lightning's glare, the corpse of a beloved mother! She whose faith forbade her to look upon the dead of her kin, was now the only watcher by the corpse of her nearest relative.
Long and wildly Neela wept, but her tears were rather the lava stream that burns, than the gentle shower that refreshes. Gradually, too, a sickening feeling of terror crept over her; horrible visions crowded on her brain, and she who had so loved her mother while living, feared to look upon her when dead. The very stillness made the blood creep coldly in her veins, and she would have given worlds to hear the sound of a human voice. In her despair she again had recourse to prayer.
Neela was calmer when she had concluded, and printing one warm kiss on the cold face of the dead; she covered it with a veil, and returned to her seat. She had sat about a quarter of an hour, musing on her desolate situation, when a slight noise aroused her, and raising her head with a start, her eye fell on the stern countenance of Leslie Gower. She would have shrieked, but her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and she was unable to utter a sound.
"Fear not, maiden," said Leslie, as he took her cold hand in his, "I came not to injure thee;" but his touch aroused all her dormant faculties, and she uttered a wild cry for help.
"Repent that cry," said Leslie, drawing a dagger from his vest, "and ere one step can advance to aid thee, this blade shall drink thine heart'ss blood. Why shouldst thou fear me, trembling fool? My purpose is to protect thee."
"Does the wolf protect the lamb, or the vulture the dove? I know thee too well to trust thy faithless promises."
"As thou wilt, fair Neela," and a bitter sneer curled his lip: "thy trust is in the promise of my high-souled brother, and art secure in his powerful protection. But know, proud Jewess, the rising of to-morrow's sun will be the signal of doom to thee. Already the monks are preparing to drag thee from thine asylum, on the charge of sorcery, and the Baron of Chesterton dares not resist the power of the Church. I alone can save thee. Even now a boat waits on the beach. Follow me silently, and ere the day dawns, it shall convey thee far beyond the reach of danger."
"Whither?" said Neela, faintly.
"Whithersoever thou wilt; and when some urgent affairs which demand my presence here are adjusted, I will follow thee, and devote my future life to thine happiness."
"Come hither," said Neela, in a tone of unnatural calmness; "I have something to show thee ere I answer."
Leslie arose, still retaining his hold of the dagger. Slowly she removed the covering she had laid on the face of her mother; and as he bent forward to gaze, a shudder passed through, his iron frame, and he felt a momentary thrill of horror.
"I had forgotten thy mother," he said, turning to the pale girl beside him; "but it is better thus; she would but have proved an incumbrance in thy flight, and the hand of cruelty cannot hurt the dead. Neela, I will be father, mother, lover, every thing to thee;" and he was about to press his lip to her pure cheek, when with the strength of despair she flew to the door; but he followed her with the swiftness of thought, and drew her back ere she could attain her purpose. "Remember," he said, touching the hilt of the dagger, "one cry, and thy fate is sealed."
"Monster! cannot the hallowed presence of the dead restrain thine unholy passion? Begone! the vilest of deaths is preferable to throe abhorred touch!"
"Bravely spoken!" and he laughed a bitter laugh. " But hast thou considered, gentle Neela, what the death will be of which thou hast spoken so calmly? Canst thou, whose youth and beauty have been guarded like a well-prized jewel or delicate flower, bear the rude gaze—the execrations of an insulting crowd? Are those lovely limbs fitted for the torture and the flame? Trust me, thou wilt think better of this, and repent when repentance is too late." But Neela heard him not, for, exhausted by previous terror and excitement, she had fainted.
"So !" he exclaimed, "fortune favours me. The disappearance of the girl, and the death of the mother; will confirm the popular belief in their guilt; and then Eugene may doubt if he will. Yes! I shall yet be Baron of Chesterton!" Raising Neela from the ground, he wrapped her veil around her, and bore her swiftly through the secret passages, with which he was well acquainted, to the sea-shore, where he found the boat which he had ordered to be in readiness. Laying her gently on the sands, he approached the vessel to give some necessary directions to the boatmen.
The fresh air, playing upon her face, revived Neela's senses; and by the gray light of dawn she beheld a large boat filled with men, silently but swiftly approaching the beach. Her heart beat, and her brain whirled at the expectation of succour; but she did not stir, for she saw that neither Gower nor his accomplices perceived it.
Having finished his directions, Leslie Gower approached to raise his victim; but Neela had watched her moment; and springing up as he came near to her; she fled towards the strange boat, the crew of which had now landed. In a moment, with his sword drawn, Gower was at her side.
"On your peril," he said, "I command ye not to interfere. She is a king's prisoner."
"It is false! it is false!" shrieked Neela: "he has torn me from my mother's corpse,—from the shelter of my friends, and is forcing me away against my will."
"Is this true?" said the foremost of the party, turning to Gower. But at the sound of that voice, Neela sprang to his side, exclaiming, "My God! my God! thou hast not forsaken the orphan." The stranger was her betrothed lover, and in an instant she was clasped in his arms.
"Thy blood be upon thine own head!" cried Gower, as he aimed a blow at the unarmed youth, which, had it taken effect, would have deprived Neela of her last hope: but the sword was dashed aside by one who had already perilled life and limb for her sake; and Sir Richard Falkner, drawn by her shrieks to the spot, once more saved her from her dreaded foe.
"Shame on thee, thou disgrace to knighthood!" said the old warrior; "thou, who, on winning thy golden spurs, swore to protect the innocent and oppressed, art violating, without remorse, that sacred covenant." Gower did not answer, and the sword fell from his powerless hand, for his eyes were fixed on an object which palsied his daring spirit: yet there was nothing fearful in the sight he beheld.
"Can the sea give up its dead? he murmured hoarsely, "or does the murdered return to earth, as priests have told, to detect and punish their destroyers! No! no!—it cannot be; my senses deceive me:—yet it is there—still there!" and the strong man, the scoffer, who had railed at religion and virtue as chimeras of the heated brain, overcome by the consciousness of guilt and superstitious terror, fainted. But none heeded him: Sir Richard Falkner and Neela had recognised the baron's lost child in the object of his dread.
The sequel is soon told. Leslie Gower had bribed the accomplice already named, to persuade the nurse, who was much attached to him, to meet him in a lonely part of the beach; during the baron's absence, with her young charge.
Gilbert had agreed to murder both nurse and child; but his heart misgave him in the moment of trial: moved by the woman's eager entreaties, yet dreading both to lose the bribe and meet the vengeance of Gower, he chose a medium course, and forcing her and the child into a boat, cut the moorings and set them adrift on the wide waters without food. He then returned to his master, and informed him that all was over. That Providence, however, which watches over the helpless, suffered them not to perish; and after a day and night of terror, they were picked up by the vessel which was bearing to England the affianced husband of Neela.
When the funeral of her mother was over, and the first month of mourning passed, Neela became the bride of Ezra; and leaving the now desolate home of her childhood, returned with him to Italy. The baron and baroness blessed her when they bade her farewell, and even dropped a tear as they beheld the bounding bark that bore her away from the shores of England for ever.
Of Leslie Gower, from the moment the baron's heir re-appeared, nothing more was heard. Whether he returned to the Holy Land, and had fallen in honourable combat against the infidel, or spent the remainder of his life in atonement beneath the cowl of the monk, for the sins of his youth, Eugene could never ascertain.