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בס"ד

Mordecai
A Tale of the English Jews in the Thirteenth Century.

(Continued from issue #6.)

Written for the Occident, by Miss Celia Moss, One of the Authoresses of the “Romance of Jewish History,” “Early Efforts,” Etc.

Chapter 2.

The congregation of Rabbi Mordecai received the tidings he brought them with sorrow, but without surprise; they had been so repeatedly victims to the tyranny of the Plantagenet kings, that they had become used to sufferings. Under the consciousness that their miseries could scarcely admit of increase, they bore this new invasion of their rights as men, and with the firmness of those who have nothing more to dread, having made up their rods to the worst. “Fear not, Rabbi Mordecai,” said Ephraim, the chief elder of the congregation, when they met in the Synagogue, “we can but die at last, as our fathers have done, for our religion; there are none here whom fear of death or love of gold will induce to forsake the faith of Abraham, or the law of Moses.”

Nevertheless it was with fear that the Jewish congregation in St. Mary Axe commenced the service on the morning of the Pentecost, and even the Rabbi, noble-hearted and firm as he was, shuddered when he remembered what that day might bring upon them all.

In the midst of the service a loud cry of terror suddenly disturbed the worshippers; the door of the Synagogue was forced open, armed men surrounded the Hebrews on all sides; to resist was impossible. The Rabbi, his grandson, and his flock were seized by the lawless soldiery, the books of the law were thrown down and trampled upon, the veil torn from the ark, and the place so lately filled will the voices of prayer and praise now resounded with the blasphemies of the licensed robbers, who cloaked their thirst for blood and rapine under the mask of religion. The Rabbi and his congregation were greeted with curses and revilings on all sides, as their rude conductors hurried them through the streets to the Dominican convent; and when they reached the gate of this edifice, they were forced into the chapel, in which Friar Eustace awaited their coming.

For two hours without intermission the unhappy Jews were compelled to listen to the preaching of the fierce bigot, who alternately threatened or attempted to cajole them to forsake the religion which was dearer to their hearts than life or liberty; but in vain did Father Eustace exhaust his eloquence. The Israelites listened without reply; but the shrewd friar easily discerned that his arguments were of little avail against the firmness of those with whom he had to contend. After a consultation with his superior, Friar Eustace determined on suffering the Jews to depart, with the exception of the Rabbi, whom it was determined to retain, until by fraud, force, or persuasion, he should be induced to change his religion, and by his example induce his flock to become converts to the Christian faith.

Rabbi Mordecai was conducted by a monk to a dreary cell, into which he was thrust, and left for some hours to his own sad reflection. With a heavy heart, Jacob, the Rabbi’s grandson, returned to his own house with the sad tidings of the captivity of his venerable grandsire. At the sound of Jacob’s steps the females, who had passed the morning in earnest prayer, sprung eagerly towards him; but when they found he was alone, one wild exclamation burst from the lips of all: “Is the Rabbi dead?”—“Not dead, but a captive,” replied the young man mournfully, “a captive in the convent of the Dominican friars;” and Jacob briefly related the events of the morning. It were vain to attempt the description of the grief that overwhelmed the Rabbi’s family during the remainder of the festival; for they well knew that perpetual imprisonment or death would be Mor­decai’s portion, unless they were able to offer a sum of money for his ransom sufficient to extort from the avarice of the monks that mercy which it was useless to hope from their justice. But where was this money to be procured? On the emigration of Mordecai’s family from Spain, their departure had been so sudden and secret that a small sum of money and some valuable jewels had been all they could take with them in their flight. During the first year of their residence in England this little store was exhausted, and consequently they had no resource but the small income the Rabbi derived from his impoverished congregation, and which would have been insufficient for the support of the family but for the money earned by Estella and Rachel, who worked at embroidery, in which the latter ways particularly skilful. From others of their tribe the family knew it was in vain to ask assistance; the most wealthy and respectable of the English Jews had already either left the kingdom altogether, or remitted the wreck of their former substance to relatives or friends in foreign countries, on whom they could rely. The rest were bowed down by terror and the heavy tributes imposed upon them; therefore the release of poor Mordecai appeared hopeless.

Many were the conferences Estella held with her son and his betrothed, for such was the relation in which Rachel stood towards him, respecting the measures to be adopted for insuring the safety of the venerable man who was so dear to them all, and to these conferences Albert at length claimed admittance.

“I am,” he said, “the child of the Rabbi’s bounty; when the men of faith and kindred sought my life, he watched over my safety, he whose religion I had been taught to hate—he took in the desolate Christian boy, he taught him all that was wise and good in his own religion without striving to weaken his faith in the religion of his fathers. And have I not a claim to aid in his release, a right to love him? Estella, I am young and strong, I am a Christian, therefore now have a right to grasp at the produce of my labour; let me also work to obtain the release of my second father.”

“Alas! poor boy, what canst thou do save expose thyself and us to danger? No, no, Albert, add not to our affliction by braving the chance of destruction to thyself in the vain hope of aiding my unfortunate father.”

The boy could only answer this argument by entreaties that Estella would show him some way in which he could be useful to the Rabbi.

“Thou art a Christian, Albert,” said the Rabbi’s daughter on the fourth day of his imprisonment. The boy eagerly repeated his entreaties—“Thou art a Christian, therefore there will be no danger in thy venturing to the Dominican convent and striving to obtain intelligence of my father.”

Albert eagerly accepted the commission, and with a heavy heart Estella saw him depart on his errand and then hastened to her mother. Esther, naturally delicate and accustomed to rely on her husband and daughter in cases of emergency, was so completely prostrated in mind from the unexpected blow which had fallen upon her as to be as helpless as a child, and Estella’s grief was greatly aggravated by the situation of her mother.

In the mean time the situation of Mordecai was becoming daily more insupportable. Sincerely attached to his religion from principle there was little danger of the Rabbi changing his faith; but his bodily sufferings during the time of his imprisonment had proved too much for his enfeebled frame, and at the time of Albert’s visit to the convent, Mordecai was stretched on a bed of sickness and compelled to listen to the exhortations of the zealous monks, who took their station by turns at his side, leaving the wretched man no respite from mental or bodily suffering. The more obstinate they found their prisoner in retaining his faith the more violent and relentless the Dominicans became, and at length finding their persuasions of no avail they determined on trying the effect of force; and this resolution was taken on the evening of the day we have mentioned. At the convent the only intelligence Albert could obtain was that the Rabbi was ill; and, moreover, little likely to obtain any freedom save that of the grave. More heavy-hearted than ever the boy returned to impart to Estella the little knowledge he had gained of her father’s fate. He found Jacob, the Rabbi’s grandson, keeping watch  by his aged grandmother, Estella and Rachel having left the house on a mission connected with their employment as embroideresses. “It was for my sake,” said Jacob, dejectedly, when the boy had delivered his tidings, “it was for my sake that my mother’s father left the lovely land where we were wealthy and happy, to brave the perils of this barbarous country, and even now when his life is in danger and gold, gold alone can rescue him from the clutches of the savage monsters who commit robbery and murder in the name of the Most High, I have not the least power to aid him, and can but sit and weep like a woman where I would fain be up and doing like a man. Oh!” he continued, clasping his hands together, “oh! that my brethren had hearts like their fathers, to conquer back the right to be treated as human beings, or at least to die like men, instead of being led like sheep to the slaughter. But who shill speak now of the valiant men of Israel or awaken a spark of courage in their hearts? Yet why should I blame them? for, alas, we have now neither homes nor altars around which we can rally; the hand of every man is against us and we have no means of opposing them; for the remnant of Israel is but as a grain of sand in the eyes of the mighty ones of the earth.”

While Jacob thus gave vent to his feelings, Albert stood revolving in his mind a thousand schemes for the deliverance of the Rabbi, each of which he was forced to give up in turn as utterly impracticable.

Chapter 3.

Amongst the most favoured of the courtiers of Edward Plantagenet was a noble knight, but lately returned from the Holy Land, where he had gained high renown by fighting against the Saracens.

Reginald de Lacy had been banished in the early part of King Edward’s reign through the machinations of his cousin, who had cast an envious eye on his inheritance; and it was not until the death of that relative that the king at length rendered justice to De Lacy by recalling him to his court and restoring once more the estates that of right belonged to him. Besides this, Edward, anxious to obliterate from the Earl’s mind the remembrance of the past, loaded him with favours and kept him constantly near his person. But though Edward of England could restore to Reginald de Lacy the estates of which he had deprived him, he could not restore from the grave the beloved wife of De Lacy nor give him tidings of his lost child; and he wandered about amongst the gay courtiers like a man in a dream, giving himself up almost wholly to the grief that clouded his declining life. But one tie yet remained to reconcile De Lacy to existence—this was a daughter by a former marriage named Maude. This beautiful girl had just left the convent in which she had found a secure asylum during her father’s absence, and was about to wed a young noble to whom she had long been attached.

Maude was a beauty and capricious, and she quickly saw the ascendancy she had gained over her father’s heart; her slightest whim was law to him and none of her wishes remained ungratified.

It chanced that Maude had seen at one of the queen’s balls a lady who had lately returned from Palestine with her husband; she wore a robe richly embroidered in the Eastern style with gems and gold. Maude thought that she had never beheld any thing more beautiful than this dress, and on her return inquired amongst her maidens for one skilful enough to work a robe like Lady Mowbray’s. But no English maiden would undertake the task. At length one of her tirewomen, who had employed Rachel frequently, suggested that the Jewish maiden could embroider a robe equally beautiful as the one Lady Maude so earnestly desired.

De Lacy, who was present at this discussion, forbade his daughter to have any dealing with a people whom he hated; for De Lacy had been bred up in all the stern bigotry of the times, and he shrank from Maude’s holding any intercourse with a race he held as accursed; but when did a young and lovely woman fail to gain a point on which she had set her  heart? Wearied out by his daughter’s importunities, De Lacy at length gave a reluctant consent that she should employ Rachel to work her robe and teach her maidens this art so much prized. Accordingly the tirewoman of Lady Maude sought out Rachel and made her acquainted with her errand. Gladly did Rachel undertake a task which she hoped might raise her up friends amongst the rich and powerful; and accompanied by Estella she set out for the stately dwelling of De Lacy.

Maude had waited impatiently for the coming of the Jewess; and where she at length entered, she was greeted by her with more kindness and less of scorn than she had ever yet received a from a Christian maiden. The beauty of the Jewess pleased and interested Lady Maude, and the sorrowful expression of Rachel’s countenance moved her pity.—“Is this maiden thy child, Jewess?” she said, turning to Estella; “if so, name thou the reward thou wilt expect for her task.”

“Nay,” said Rachel, interrupting Estella, who was about to speak, “I name no reward until my task be finished, and then I must name my own price for my toil.”

“Be it so, maiden,” answered Maude, smiling, “Bridget will instruct thee in thy task.” Day after day Rachel sought the habitation of the Lady Maude, while Estella saw her depart with prayers and tears; for she trusted that the introduction of Rachel into the household of a powerful Ennglish noble might in some way be conducive to the safety of her beloved father. Rachel, naturally timid and sensitive, suffered much from the haughty contempt she encountered amongst the attendants of Maude, beings as inferior to herself in intellect as they were superior to her in their position in life; but, the remembrance that she entered on a task for a high and noble purpose nerved her heart; for the thought of the Rabbi and the hope that the child of his bounty should prove the humble instrument of his release aroused all her courage, and day after day, with a pale cheek but a hopeful heart, she pursued her task, unheeding the mockery of the English girls to whom her Jewish origin and the badge which Edward had forced women as well as men to assume was an unfailing subject of scorn and mirth; and when with weary eyes and aching heart she returned in the evening to the Rabbi’s dwelling, she would hide from Estella all she had suffered through the day and dwell upon the kindness of Maude, who ever had a sweet smile and a hind word for the Jewish maiden.

A month had gone by since the Rabbi’s imprisonment, during which he had suffered torture more than once; but his unbending spirit had supported him in the trial, and even while under the hands of the torturer he had repeated the confession of faith “Hear, O Israel! the Lord Our God is one God;” nor could threats or entreaties win from him any other declaration. At length wearied out by his firmness, and fearing that their victim could not survive any further infliction of cruelty, the monks thrust the unfortunate Rabbi into a miserable dungeon and left him to solitude.

With difficulty the Rabbi crawled to the heap of straw that composed his bed, and throwing himself upon it, said, “Thy will, not mine, O Lord, be done! yet how pleasant it would be to lay down this weary load of life. Shall I never behold the wife of my bosom, and beloved children again? Alas! I fear, we have parted for ever; and better would it be for me, if my persecutors would end this fearful trial by destroying this wretched existence.

“Jew, it rests with thyself to exchange this hard couch for a bed of down, and this prison cell for a stately palace,” said a voice beside him, which Mordecai at once recognised as that of the prior of the convent; “abjure the accursed errors of thy people, and take upon thee our holy and blessed faith, and the remainder of thy days shall be peace and enjoyment.”

“Friar,” answered the old man, his voice trembling with emotion, “listen to me! I have already told thee how vain are promises or threats to win me from the Law of God, delivered through his servant Moses; cruelty thou hast tried; these aged limbs have been stretched upon the rack until my fainting frame could endure no more; and yet ye could not extort from me a denial of my faith. Now hearken unto me, and I will show how vain it is for thee to attempt to win me to thy will by promise of sensual enjoyment.

“When I was yet a boy, my father died, and left me a splendid heritage, in my own lovely land of Spain. The enjoyments of thy northern land are but hardships compared to the beauties of the lovely south; and the highest of these luxuries it was my fortune to enjoy. I wedded and was happy in my marriage; my time was passed in the study óf the law, and the sweet delights of home. I had one child, a daughter, whom it was my pride to educate in wisdom and virtue. She wedded and became a mother. Estella loved her husband with her whole heart; but the allurements of rank and princely favour were too great for the virtue of Asher to resist. He became an apostate, and wished to seduce my child to his new faith; but Estella preferred her religion to her husband; she was divorced from him and returned heart-broken to her father’s roof accompanied by her child—of this child her husband wished to gain possession to rear him in his new creed. Then I left home, country, wealth, and kindred; I braved exile and poverty to preserve the faith and soul of my child’s child: thinkest thou I am to be tempted now?”

The friar, stern as he was by nature and education, was moved by the emotion of the old man, and his self-devotion; he saw at once how useless it would be to make farther attempts on the religion of the Rabbi. Admiring the dauntless spirit, so like his own, which supported Mordecai, he left the dungeon without further reply; but gave instant order for the removal of the Jew to a comfortable cell, and that one of the friars, who was a skilful surgeon, should attend to his broken and suffering limbs, and such food should be supplied to him as his religion permitted him to partake of.

(To be continued.)