The Siege of the Castle

by Sir Walter Scott

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While these measures were taking in behalf of Cedric and his companions, the armed men by whom the latter had been seized hurried their captives along toward the place of security, where they intended to imprison them. But darkness came on fast, and the paths of the wood seemed but imperfectly known to the vmarauders. They were compelled to make several long halts and once or twice to return on their road to resume the direction which they wished to pursue. It was, therefore, not until the light of the summer morn had dawned upon them that they could travel in full assurance that they held the right path.

In vain Cedric vexpostulated with his guards, who refused to break their silence for his wrath or his protests. They continued to hurry him along, traveling at a very rapid rate, until, at the end of an avenue of huge trees, arose Torquilstone, the hoary and ancient castle of Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. It was a fortress of no great size, consisting of a donjon, or large and high square tower, surrounded by buildings of inferior height. Around the exterior wall was a deep moat, supplied with water from a neighboring rivulet. Front-de-Boeuf, whose character placed him often at feud with his neighbors, had made considerable additions to the strength of his castle by building towers upon the outward wall, so as to flank it at every angle. The access, as usual in castles of the period, lay through an arched vbarbican or outwork, which was defended by a small turret.

Cedric no sooner saw the turrets of Front-de-Boeuf’s castle raise their gray and moss-grown battlements, glimmering in the morning sun, above the woods by which they were surrounded than he instantly augured more truly concerning the cause of his misfortune.

“I did injustice,” he said, “to the thieves and outlaws of these woods, when I supposed such banditti to belong to their bands. I might as justly have confounded the foxes of these brakes with the ravening wolves of France!”

Arrived before the castle, the prisoners were compelled by their guards to alight and were hastened across the drawbridge into the castle. They were immediately conducted to an apartment where a hasty repast was offered them, of which none but Athelstane felt any inclination to partake. Neither did he have much time to do justice to the good cheer placed before him, for the guards gave him and Cedric to understand that they were to be imprisoned in a chamber apart from Rowena. Resistance was vain; and they were compelled to follow to a large room, which, rising on clumsy Saxon pillars, resembled the vrefectories and chapter-houses which may still be seen in the most ancient parts of our most ancient monasteries.

The Lady Rowena was next separated from her train and conducted with courtesy, indeed, but still without consulting her inclination, to a distant apartment. The same alarming distinction was conferred on the young Jewess, Rebecca, in spite of the entreaties of her father, who offered money in the extremity of his distress that she might be permitted to abide with him.

“Base unbeliever,” answered one of his guards, “when thou hast seen thy lair, thou wilt not wish thy daughter to partake it.”

Without further discussion, the old Jew was dragged off in a different direction from the other prisoners. The domestics, after being searched and disarmed, were confined in another part of the castle.

The three leaders of the banditti and the men who had planned and carried out the outrage, Norman knights,—Front-de-Boeuf, the brutal owner of the castle; Maurice de Bracy, a free-lance, who sought to wed the Lady Rowena by force and so had arranged the attack, and Brian de vBois-Guilbert, a distinguished member of the famous order of vKnights Templar,—had a short discussion together and then separated. Front-de-Boeuf immediately sought the apartment where Isaac of York tremblingly awaited his fate.

The Jew had been hastily thrown into a dungeon-vault of the castle, the floor of which was deep beneath the level of the earth, and very damp, being lower than the moat itself. The only light was received through one or two loop-holes far above the reach of the captive’s hand. These vapertures admitted, even at midday, only a dim and uncertain light, which was changed for utter darkness long before the rest of the castle had lost the blessing of day. Chains and shackles, which had been the portion of former captives, hung rusted and empty on the walls of the prison, and in the rings of one of these sets of fetters there remained two moldering bones which seemed those of the human leg.

At one end of this ghastly apartment was a large fire-grate, over the top of which were stretched some transverse iron bars, half devoured with rust.

The whole appearance of the dungeon might have appalled a stouter heart than that of Isaac, who, nevertheless, was more composed under the imminent pressure of danger than he had seemed to be while affected by terrors of which the cause was as yet remote and vcontingent. It was not the first time that Isaac had been placed in circumstances so dangerous. He had, therefore, experience to guide him, as well as a hope that he might again be delivered from the peril.

The Jew remained without altering his position for nearly three hours, at the end of which time steps were heard on the dungeon stair. The bolts screamed as they were withdrawn, the hinges creaked as the wicket opened, and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, followed by two Saracen slaves of the Templar, entered the prison.

Front-de-Boeuf, a tall and strong man, whose life had been spent in public war or in private feuds and broils and who had hesitated at no means of extending his vfeudal power, had features corresponding to his character, and which strongly expressed the fiercer and more evil passions of the mind. The scars with which his visage was seamed would, on features of a different cast, have excited the sympathy due to the marks of honorable valor; but in the peculiar case of Front-de-Boeuf they only added to the ferocity of his countenance and to the dread which his presence inspired. The formidable baron was clad in a leathern doublet, fitted close to his body, which was frayed and soiled with the stains of his armor. He had no weapon, except a vponiard at his belt, which served to counter-balance the weight of the bunch of rusty keys that hung at his right side.

The black slaves who attended Front-de-Boeuf were attired in jerkins and trousers of coarse linen, their sleeves being tucked up above the elbow, like those of butchers when about to exercise their functions in the slaughter-house. Each had in his hand a small vpannier; and when they entered the dungeon, they paused at the door until Front-de-Boeuf himself carefully locked and double-locked it. Having taken this precaution, he advanced slowly up the apartment toward the Jew, upon whom he kept his eye fixed as if he wished to paralyze him with his glance, as some animals are said to fascinate their prey.

The Jew sat with his mouth agape and his eyes fixed on the savage baron with such earnestness of terror that his frame seemed literally to shrink together and diminish in size while encountering the fierce Norman’s fixed and baleful gaze. The unhappy Isaac was deprived not only of the power of rising to make the vobeisance which his fear had dictated, but he could not even doff his cap or utter any word of supplication, so strongly was he agitated by the conviction that tortures and death were impending over him.

On the other hand, the stately form of the Norman appeared to dilate in magnitude, like that of the eagle, which ruffles up its plumage when about to pounce on its defenseless prey. He paused within three steps of the corner in which the unfortunate Hebrew had now, as it were, coiled himself up into the smallest possible space, and made a sign for one of the slaves to approach. The black vsatellite came forward accordingly, and producing from his basket a large pair of scales and several weights, he laid them at the feet of Front-de-Boeuf and retired to the respectful distance at which his companion had already taken his station.

The motions of these men were slow and solemn, as if there impended over their souls some vpreconception of horror and cruelty. Front-de-Boeuf himself opened the scene by addressing his ill-fated captive.

“Most accursed dog,” he said, awakening with his deep and sullen voice the echoes of the dungeon vault, “seest thou these scales?”

The unhappy Jew returned a feeble affirmative.

“In these very scales shalt thou weigh me out,” said the relentless baron, “a thousand silver pounds, after the just measure and weight of the Tower of London.”

“Holy Abraham!” returned the Jew, finding voice through the very extremity of his danger; “heard man ever such a demand? Who ever heard, even in a minstrel’s tale, of such a sum as a thousand pounds of silver? What human eyes were ever blessed with the sight of so great a mass of treasure? Not within the walls of York, ransack my house and that of all my tribe, wilt thou find the vtithe of that huge sum of silver that thou speakest of.”

“I am reasonable,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, “and if silver be scant, I refuse not gold. At the rate of a mark of gold for each six pounds of silver, thou shalt free thy unbelieving carcass from such punishment as thy heart has never even conceived in thy wildest imaginings.”

“Have mercy on me, noble knight!” pleaded Isaac. “I am old, and poor, and helpless. It were unworthy to triumph over me. It is a poor deed to crush a worm.”

“Old thou mayst be,” replied the knight, “and feeble thou mayst be; but rich it is known thou art.”

“I swear to you, noble knight,” said Isaac, “by all which I believe and all which we believe in common—”

“Perjure not thyself,” interrupted the Norman, “and let not thy obstinacy seal thy doom, until thou hast seen and well considered the fate that awaits thee. This prison is no place for trifling. Prisoners ten thousand times more distinguished than thou have died within these walls, and their fate has never been known. But for thee is reserved a long and lingering death, to which theirs was luxury.”

He again made a signal for the slaves to approach and spoke to them apart in their own language; for he had been a crusader in Palestine, where, perhaps, he had learned his lesson of cruelty. The Saracens produced from their baskets a quantity of charcoal, a pair of bellows, and a flask of oil. While the one struck a light with a flint and steel, the other disposed the charcoal in the large rusty grate which we have already mentioned and exercised the bellows until the fuel came to a red glow.

“Seest thou, Isaac,” said Front-de-Boeuf, “the range of iron bars above that glowing charcoal? On that warm couch thou shalt lie, stripped of thy clothes as if thou wert to rest on a bed of down. One of these slaves shall maintain the fire beneath thee, while the other shall anoint thy wretched limbs with oil, lest the roast should burn. Now choose betwixt such a scorching bed and the payment of a thousand pounds of silver; for, by the head of my father, thou hast no other voption.”

“It is impossible,” exclaimed the miserable Isaac; “it is impossible that your purpose can be real! The good God of nature never made a heart capable of exercising such cruelty!”

“Trust not to that, Isaac,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “it were a fatal error. Dost thou think that I who have seen a town sacked, in which thousands perished by sword, by flood, and by fire, will blench from my purpose for the outcries of a single wretch? Be wise, old man; discharge thyself of a portion of thy superfluous wealth; repay to the hands of a Christian a part of what thou hast acquired by vusury. Thy cunning may soon swell out once more thy shriveled purse, but neither leech nor medicine can restore thy scorched hide and flesh wert thou once stretched on these bars. Tell down thy vransom, I say, and rejoice that at such a rate thou canst redeem thyself from a dungeon, the secrets of which few have returned to tell. I waste no more words with thee. Choose between thy vdross and thy flesh and blood, and as thou choosest so shall it be.”

“So may Abraham 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 vexorbitant demand!”

“Seize him and strip him, slaves,” said the knight.

The assistants, taking their directions more from the baron’s eye and hand than his tongue, once more stepped forward, laid hands on the unfortunate Isaac, plucked him up from the ground, and holding him between them, waited the hard-hearted baron’s further signal. The unhappy man eyed their countenances and that of Front-de-Boeuf in the hope of discovering some symptoms of softening; but that of the baron showed the same cold, half-sullen, half-sarcastic smile, which had been the prelude to his cruelty; and the savage eyes of the Saracens, rolling gloomily under their dark brows, evinced rather the secret pleasure which they expected from the approaching scene than any reluctance to be its agents. The Jew then looked at the glowing furnace, over which he was presently to be stretched, and, seeing no chance of his tormentor’s relenting, his resolution gave way.

“I will pay,” he said, “the thousand pounds of silver—that is, I will pay it with the help of my brethren, for I must beg as a mendicant at the door of our synagogue ere I make up so unheard-of a sum. When and where must it be delivered?” he inquired with a sigh.

“Here,” replied Front-de-Boeuf. “Weighed it must be—weighed and told down on this very dungeon floor. Thinkest thou I will part with thee until thy ransom is secure?”

“Then let my daughter Rebecca go forth to York,” said Isaac, “with your safe conduct, noble knight, and so soon as man and horse can return, the treasure—” Here he groaned deeply, but added, after the pause of a few seconds,—“the treasure shall be told down on this floor.”

“Thy daughter!” said Front-de-Boeuf, as if surprised. “By Heavens, Isaac, I would I had known of this! I gave yonder black-browed girl to Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, to be his prisoner. She is not in my power.”

The yell which Isaac raised at this unfeeling communication made the very vault to ring, and astounded the two Saracens so much that they let go their hold of the victim. He availed himself of his freedom to throw himself on the pavement and clasp the knees of Front-de-Boeuf.

“Take all that you have asked,” said he—“take ten times more—reduce me to ruin and to beggary, if thou wilt—nay, pierce me with thy poniard, broil me on that furnace, but spare my daughter! Will you deprive me of my sole remaining comfort in life?”

“I would,” said the Norman, somewhat relenting, “that I had known of this before. I thought you loved nothing but your money-bags.”

“Think not so vilely of me,” returned Isaac, eager to improve the moment of apparent sympathy. “I love mine own, even as the hunted fox, the tortured wildcat loves its young.”

“Be it so,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “but it aids us not now. I cannot help what has happened or what is to follow. My word is passed to my comrade in arms that he shall have the maiden as his share of the spoil, and I would not break it for ten Jews and Jewesses to boot. Take thought instead to pay me the ransom thou hast promised, or woe betide thee!”

“Robber and villain!” cried the Jew, “I will pay thee nothing—not one silver penny will I pay thee unless my daughter is delivered to me in safety!”

“Art thou in thy senses, Israelite?” asked the Norman sternly. “Hast thy flesh and blood a charm against heated iron and scalding oil?”

“I care not!” replied the Jew, rendered desperate by paternal affection; “my daughter is my flesh and blood, dearer to me a thousand times than those limbs thy cruelty threatens. No silver will I give thee unless I were to pour it molten down thy vavaricious throat—no, not a silver penny will I give thee, vNazarene, were it to save thee from the deep damnation thy whole life has merited. Take my life, if thou wilt, and say that the Jew, amidst his tortures, knew how to disappoint the Christian.”

“We shall see that,” said Front-de-Boeuf; “for by the blessed vrood thou shalt feel the extremities of fire and steel! Strip him, slaves, and chain him down upon the bars.”

In spite of the feeble struggles of the old man, the Saracens had already torn from him 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. Immediately after 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, quitting the dungeon with his attendants, he left the Jew to thank God for his own deliverance or to lament over his daughter’s captivity, as his personal or parental feelings might prove the stronger.

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