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בס"ד

Mordecai.

A Novel of the English Jews in the Thirteenth Century.

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

Chapter 1.

But for the late persecution of the Jews of Damascus, and the yet impending fate of our unhappy brethren in Russia, we, who live under the protection of an equitable government, might be inclined to doubt the dreadful details handed down to us of the sufferings endured by our forefathers, in the various countries of Europe, during the middle ages. Driven successively from one kingdom to another, hunted like wild beasts from the homes they had begun to love, and the graves where reposed the ashes of their fathers, well might the poet say of them:

“Tribes of the wandering foot and weary breast,
How shall ye flee away and be at rest?
The wild bird hath her nest, the fox his cave,
Mankind their country—Israel but a grave.”

In one of the streets, near the Jews’ Synagogue, in St. Mary Axe, then and at present known by the name of Bevis Marks, in the year 1290, during the reign of King Edward I.; dwelt a Jewish Rabbi, celebrated for his learning and piety.

The family of Mordecai—so was the Rabbi named—consisted of his wife, daughter, and an orphan whom they had taken from charity, the grandson of the Rabbi, and a boy of about fourteen years of age, whose fair complexion, light hair, and blue eyes, proved him not to be of Eastern origin.

A few years previous to the commencement of our tale, family misfortunes had compelled Rabbi Mordecai to leave the home of his fathers, the lovely land of Spain, and seek a new settlement in England. Here the fame of his learning procured him the situation of Reader to the Synagogue near which his house was situated.

Age and suffering had left their marks stamped upon the brow of Rabbi Mordecai; while his wife, of a more buoyant temperament, showed fewer marks of their ravages,—and in her unceasing affection he found a solace for his sorrows, and an assistance in his toils. Their daughter Estella was a spirit-bowed woman, whose face bore marks of the premature blight which had fallen on her heart, although she shared in an eminent degree her father’s piety and firm trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wise, prudent, and instructed by the Rabbi, whose only child she was, in the sublime truths of our holy religion, it was to Estella the Rabbi looked as his friend and adviser in times of peril; for Esther, his wife, although gentle and affectionate, was timid, and therefore an unfit companion in times of danger.

Rachel, the orphan girl already mentioned, was betrothed to the son of Estella; and the character of both will best be described in the course of events we are about to narrate.

One other person remains to be described,—and this was the fair-haired boy, the knowledge of whose history was confined to the Rabbi alone. All that his family knew of Albert was, that he was a Christian whom chance had thrown on the Rabbi’s protection, and whom it was necessary for his own sake to keep in secrecy, as the knowledge of his being yet in existence might prove fatal to his safety.

Circumstances had rendered Albert sad and thoughtful beyond his years. Debarred from all society, save that of the Rabbi’s family, of the world without he knew nothing,—and his sole pleasure was in receiving the instructions of the Rabbi, and reading the ponderous volumes which composed his library, and which were the sole remains of former opulence. There were times, however, when Albert’s countenance would assume its natural joyous expression, and his eyes would light up with sudden animation, and this was when the Rabbi, who dearly loved the desolate boy, would, to please him, recount the history of the warriors of old, or the more recent achievements of Richard of England and King Edward in Palestine, and Albert sighed when he heard the wise Mordecai stigmatize those wars which had desolated Europe from the days of William Rufus as unholy battles, begun in folly and fanaticism, and ending in vain conquests lost as soon as gained. “The Mussulmen and Christians may struggle for the holy land,” he would say, “and destroy each other in their bloodthirstiness; but it is to the exiled Jew alone that the holy land of right belongs, and to him in his own good time will the Guardian of Israel restore it.”

The religion of his charge the Rabbi never sought to weaken; but he impressed on the ductile mind of the boy those precepts of universal toleration little known and less practised in that age and country.

The Jews of England, at the period of which we speak, groaned under a yoke as grievous as that of their forefathers in Egypt, and every day multiplied the acts of cruelty and oppression with which the bigotry and intolerance of Edward Plantagenet loaded them. Fines, confiscations, and exile, daily took place amongst them; and the unfortunate Israelites found that fraud and force were alike employed to induce them to abjure their religion; but in vain; for the spirit of endurance and faith was firm amongst them, and they opposed to their persecutors that passive courage for which the sons of Israel have been famed in all ages, and which is nobler, because founded in firmer principles, than the animal courage of bold resistance by force of arms. But it was for this silent endurance that the fierce barons of England, whose law and religion was the sword, despised and trampled upon the unhappy beings, whose helplessness and reputed wealth left them so easy a prey. We say reputed wealth; because a long series of oppressive exactions on the part of the Plantagenet kings had left the Jews of England with but a remnant of their famed opulence; and even that remnant the king and the church looked upon with greedy eyes, so that it was doubtful how long they might remain in possession of the little which had been left them.

It was the eve of the festival of Pentecost, and the Rabbi’s family were in the Synagogue at prayers when Albert, who had been left in quiet possession of the dwelling, was startled by a loud and impatient knocking at the outer door. Knowing that the Rabbi and his family could not yet have returned, the boy with some alarm prepared to answer the summons. The person who claimed admission in so clamorous a manner was an armed man, having a written order from the king to Rabbi Mordecai. Albert’s heart misgave him, for he feared, and with justice, fresh evil to his kind protectors; and when the soldier departed, it was with a sad foreboding that he awaited the Rabbi’s return.

Albert suffered the blessings and the meal to proceed as usual, but that over, he beckoned the Rabbi on one side, and briefly narrated the soldier’s errand. With a trembling hand Mordecai took the parchment and read its contents, his blanched cheek and look of alarm and horror at once aroused the fears of his family, although they waited in respectful silence until it was his will to acquaint them with his cause of alarm. For some moments Mordecai remained silent, wildly contemplating the summons of the king; and when he at length spoke, it was in a voice so hoarse and broken that its tones terrified them even before they understood the purport of his words.

“Behold,” he said, “the missive of the tyrant,” and he placed it in the hands of his grandson; “not content with robbing us of our earthly possessions, this cruel and bloodthirsty oppressor would rob us of the consolations of religion also. He hath sent a summons to me and my congregation to attend in the Dominican convent in Whitechapel, to-morrow, the preaching of Father Eustace, a bigoted fanatic, and a bitter persecutor of the remnant of Israel.” A wild cry of horror and despair broke from the Rabbi’s family at this fearful announcement, and Esther threw herself into the arms of her husband, exclaiming, “Oh! why did we ever leave our own beautiful Spain to come into this accursed and bloodthirsty country!” Estella burst into tears. “It was for my sake,” she exclaimed, “and my child’s, that ye, my beloved parents, braved the dangers of the sea and the perils incurred in this land of barbarism. Oh! would that I had died in the hour when sorrows first came upon me,—then might the remnant of your days have been passed in peace and security.”

“Nay, Estella, grieve not thus,” answered the Rabbi, drawing her fondly towards him, and laying his feeble hand on her brow. “What is written is written, and man vainly strives in his shortsighted wisdom to set aside the decrees of Providence. It is to try and prove the purity of our faith that we are here; and let us not shrink in the first moment of danger from firmly upholding that faith, though in doing so we exchange a life of trouble and suffering for a glorious immortality.”

“Weep not,” continued the old man, raising his weeping wife from his bosom, “it is to thee our children look for support in this hour of trial, set them not the example of faint-heartedness.”

“And wilt thou obey this summons, my father?” said Estella, striving to imitate the firmness of Mordecai.

“My child,” replied the Rabbi, “for three-score years and ten I have already endured the burden of life; and whenever it be the Almighty’s will, I am ready to resign it. Forty years I have been a teacher in Israel; and during the whole of that time it has been my study to expound the word of God unto my flock, and teach them to reverence his laws, to live in their practice, and not to forsake the holy truths if they should even be called upon to die for maintaining them; and shall I now, because danger threatens, be the first to abandon the precepts I taught? Thou, mine own darling, when thou wert called upon to forsake the law of God, by one whom thou hadst dearly loved, the husband of thy youth, to preserve thy child from the crime of his father, fleddest from the house, where thou hadst enjoyed wealth and queenly luxury, to brave every hardship for thy religion’s sake; hast thou not toiled with the labour of thy hands, thou who from thy cradle wert accustomed to every splendour; and shall I, thy old father, who could, for his child’s sake, seek voluntary exile, refuse to do that for his God which his earthly affections prompted him to dare? Arouse once more, thy courage and endurance, my Estella, and comfort thy unhappy mother in her hour of trial. To-morrow is our holy festival, and I perform the service in the Synagogue, as it is written, though it be the last time I glorify the name of God on earth.”

“Oh, Mordecai!” shrieked Esther, “peril not thy life, and leave me a widow in a strange land; think of thy desolate daughter, her orphan child, and Jacob—Rachel—oh, who will protect us all, if thou art taken from us.”

“Esther,” replied the Rabbi, “if I perish, the Husband of the widow, and the Father of the fatherless, even He, who dwelleth in the high heavens, will protect those whom earthly friends have forsaken; then murmur not at his decrees, but teach thy children to bless and glorify his name; and forbear,” he added, sternly, seeing she was about to speak, “to show the example of weakness to those who ought to find in thee a support in the path of righteousness, and let them not behold thee as a backslider, who falls off on the first appearance of danger. As for me, I will put my trust in the Rock of Ages, and neither fear nor interest shall tempt me from my duty.”

Esther’s habitual submission to the will of her husband kept her silent, and the Rabbi, motioning his daughter to follow him, led the way to the apartment solely dedicated to his use. “Come hither, Estella,” he said, as he closed the door carefully,” in thy fortitude and courage I know I can place confidence; and as this may be the last opportunity I may ever have of speaking to my child, I would confide to thee the history of the Christian boy so strangely thrown upon my care. I will not conceal from thee, Estella, that possibly to-morrow will bring death to thy father, and many of the persecuted remnant of Israel; thy beloved mother, so timid and gentle, will have but thee as a support in her helplessness. Then perchance the bread which I have cast upon the waters will return unto thee, and the protection and love I have shown to this child be repaid to my wife and children. Be careful and prudent, Estella, in the use of the knowledge I am about to confide in thee, but above all peril not the safety of the boy.” Then seeing Estella did not speak, he continued: “Albert is of noble, nay, of royal blood; for by his mother’s side he is nearly related to the cruel king who sways the sceptre of England; and his sire, Reginald de Lacy, was one of the bravest and most powerful of the barons confederates against the late King Henry; for this, and some offence against the present king, he was banished the kingdom six years ago, and forced to leave his wife and child, while his lands were given to his cousin, Walter de Lacy.

“In his eagerness to secure himself in the possession of the wealth thus acquired, the new earl attempted to obtain possession of the persons of De Lacy’s wife and child. The death of the former through grief, at the exile of her husband, defeated one part of his plan and the other has been hitherto frustrated by the Providence that conducted this relation of Plantagenet to the dwelling of a Jew.

“It is now five years since, walking one night in a melancholy mood by the side of the river that washes this great city, I was aroused from a sad revery by a low moan, followed by a cry for help in the feeble voice of a child. Yielding rather to the impulse of the moment than the dictates of prudence I mended my steps, and near the ruins of what had once been a dwelling-house, I beheld a man stretched on the ground and weltering in his blood. A boy about eight or nine years old, who was weeping bitterly, was kneeling by his, side, striving with his little trembling hands to staunch the blood which was welling from a ghastly wound in the breast.

“At the sound of my footsteps, the wounded man raised his head and entreated assistance for himself and protection for the child. I placed his head on my knee and carefully bound the wound which was destroying his life. While in the act of rendering him assistance, I saw his eye rest on the badge I wore, and he recoiled with horror when he found that it was a Jew who was endeavouring to preserve his life.

“The sense of danger, however, and the consciousness that both he and the child must inevitably perish if left to themselves, conquered his repugnance, and, in a voice becoming fainter and fainter from exhaustion, he entreated me not to leave him.

“The boy, who had ceased to weep, and stood pale and trembling by the wounded man, now in low, sweet accents, entreated me not to let his good Gilbert die, as his mother had done, and leave him alone in the wide world, with no one to love him.

“The child’s grief touched my heart, but an examination into the state of Gilbert convinced me that he had but a short time to live; and of this I warned him, taking care that the boy, whose artless affection interested me, should not overhear what I said.

“A convulsive spasm passed over the face of the wounded man at this intelligence, and he muttered what appeared to be a prayer for a few moments,—then snatching the boy to his bosom, he exclaimed, ‘The saints aid the poor boy. Thy mother dead, thy father in exile, thy faithful Gilbert dying,—who is there now to protect thee?’

“ ‘He shall not need a protector while I have the means of sheltering him,’ I exclaimed, forgetting every consideration in pity for the desolate orphan.

“ ‘Alas!’ answered Gilbert, ‘a Jew, a stranger, one of an accursed race, thou become the guardian of De Lacy’s heir! Yet, what better can I do for thee, child of my love? Could I but have seen thee safe in the arms of thy father, that life would have been well bestowed which insured the safety of my liege lord. Now Reginald de Lacy, in exile and suffering, will learn from strangers the loss of all he loves.’

“While Gilbert spoke, the boy, who comprehended from the words of his faithful friend that he was about to lose him, clung to him with frantic eagerness, entreating not to be left alone. ‘Let me die with you, Gilbert,’ he said; ‘let me die with you. Oh! leave not your Albert as my own dear mother left me!’

“Albert’s emotion proved fatal to the faithful Gilbert, for in striving to raise himself to comfort the boy, his wounds burst out afresh. ‘Jew!’ he said, ‘desert not the child; remember he is a Christian, and the heir of De Lacy, whose foes seek his innocent life; but do thou protect him till the cloud hath passed from the fortunes of De Lacy;’ and his voice died away in a hollow murmur, and, striving with a last effort to embrace the child, the loved Gilbert fell back and died.

“I searched the body, and discovered on it a letter addressed to Earl de Lacy, a case of jewels, and a few gold pieces; then lifting Albert, whom grief had rendered speechless, in my arms, I regained my own dwelling as quickly as possible. Since then this Christian boy, as thou knowest, has been an inmate of my dwelling, and I love him even as mine own child. All the tidings I have been able to learn of his sire are, that he fought for many years in the Holy Land; but, as his cousin is lately dead without heirs, it is rumoured that the banished Earl will regain his inheritance. If it be so, Estella, and I perish, do thou restore the child to his parent; and in return for all I have done for him, doubtless this Christian noble will protect my helpless family. In my cedar chest thou wilt find the letter and the jewels I have mentioned; preserve them carefully until thou canst restore them to their rightful owners.”

Estella had listened in respectful silence to the recital of her father; but when he concluded, she threw herself on his neck and wept bitterly. “Nay, my child,” said Mordecai, pressing her to his heart, “afflict not thyself needlessly; the issue of this affair is in the hands of God, and to his will we must submit. Peace be with thee. I go to acquaint our brethren with the decree of the tyrant.”

(To be continued.)