In the meantime, the wounded Wilfred of Ivanhoe had been gradually recovering his strength. Taken into her litter by Rebecca when his own father hesitated to succor him, the young knight had lain in a stupor through all the experiences of the journey and the capture of Cedric’s party by the Normans. De Bracy, who, bad as he was, was not without some compunction, on finding the occupant of the litter to be Ivanhoe, had placed the invalid under the charge of two of his squires, who were directed to state to any inquirers that he was a wounded comrade. This explanation was now accordingly returned by these men to Front-de-Boeuf, when, in going the round of the castle, he questioned them why they did not make for the battlements upon the alarm of the attack.
“A wounded comrade!” he exclaimed in great wrath and astonishment. “No wonder that churls and yeomen wax so presumptuous as even to lay leaguer before castles, and that clowns and swineherds send defiances to nobles, since men-at-arms have turned sick men’s nurses. To the battlements, ye loitering villains!” he cried, raising his vstentorian voice till the arches rang again; “to the battlements, or I will splinter your bones with this truncheon.”
The men, who, like most of their description, were fond of enterprise and detested inaction, went joyfully to the scene of danger, and the care of Ivanhoe fell to Rebecca, who occupied a neighboring apartment and who was not kept in close confinement.
The beautiful young Jewess rejoined the knight, whom she had so signally befriended, at the moment of the beginning of the attack on the castle. Ivanhoe, already much better and chafing at his enforced inaction, resembled the war-horse who scenteth the battle afar.
“If I could but drag myself to yonder window,” he said, “that I might see how this brave game is like to go—if I could strike but a single blow for our deliverance! It is in vain; I am alike nerveless and weaponless!”
“Fret not thyself, noble knight,” answered Rebecca, “the sounds have ceased of a sudden. It may be they join not battle.”
“Thou knowest naught of it,” returned Wilfred, impatiently; “this dead pause only shows that the men are at their posts on the walls and expect an instant attack. What we have heard was but the distant muttering of the storm, which will burst anon in all its fury. Could I but reach yonder window!”
“Thou wilt injure thyself by the attempt, noble knight,” replied the attendant. Then she added, “I myself will stand at the lattice and describe to you as I can what passes without.”
“You must not; you shall not!” exclaimed Ivanhoe. “Each lattice will soon be a mark for the archers; some random shaft may strike you. At least cover thy body with yonder ancient buckler and show as little of thyself as may be.”
Availing herself of the protection of the large, ancient shield, which she placed against the lower part of the window, Rebecca, with tolerable security, could witness part of what was passing without the castle and report to Ivanhoe the preparations being made for the storming. From where she stood she had a full view of the outwork likely to be the first object of the assault. It was a fortification of no great height or strength, intended to protect the postern-gate through which Cedric had been recently dismissed by Front-de-Boeuf. The castle moat divided this species of barbican from the rest of the fortress, so that, in case of its being taken, it was easy to cut off the communication with the main building by withdrawing the temporary bridge. In the outwork was a sally-port corresponding to the postern of the castle, and the whole was surrounded by a strong palisade. From the mustering of the assailants in a direction nearly opposite the outwork, it seemed plain that this point had been selected for attack.
Rebecca communicated this to Ivanhoe, and added, “The skirts of the wood seem lined with archers, although only a few are advanced from its dark shadow.”
“Under what banner?” asked Ivanhoe.
“Under no ensign of war which I can observe,” answered Rebecca.
“A singular novelty,” muttered the knight, “to advance to storm such a castle without pennon or banner displayed! Seest thou who they are that act as leaders? Or, are all of them but stout yeomen?”
“A knight clad in sable armor is the most conspicuous,” she replied; “he alone is armed from head to foot, and he seems to assume the direction of all around him.”
“Seem there no other leaders?” demanded the anxious inquirer.
“None of mark and distinction that I can behold from this station,” said Rebecca. “They appear even now preparing to attack. God of Zion protect us! What a dreadful sight! Those who advance first bear huge shields and defenses made of plank; the others follow, bending their bows as they come on. They raise their bows! God of Moses, forgive the creatures thou hast made!”
Her description was suddenly interrupted by the signal for assault, which was the blast of a shrill bugle, at once answered by a flourish of the Norman trumpets from the battlements. The shouts of both parties augmented the fearful din, the assailants crying, “Saint George for merry England!” and the Normans answering them with cries of “vBeauseant! Beauseant!“
It was not, however, by clamor that the contest was to be decided, and the desperate efforts of the assailants were met by an equally vigorous defense on the part of the besieged. The archers, trained by their woodland pastimes to the most effective use of the longbow, shot so rapidly and accurately that no point at which a defender could show the least part of his person escaped their vcloth-yard shafts. By this heavy discharge, which continued as thick and sharp as hail, two or three of the garrison were slain and several others wounded. But, confident in their armor of proof and in the cover which their situation afforded, the followers of Front-de-Boeuf, and his allies, showed an obstinacy in defense proportioned to the fury of the attack, replying with the discharge of their large cross-bows to the close and continued shower of arrows. As the assailants were necessarily but indifferently protected, they received more damage than they did.
“And I must lie here like a bedridden monk,” exclaimed Ivanhoe, “while the game that gives me freedom or death is played out by the hands of others! Look from the window once again, kind maiden, but beware that you are not marked by the archers beneath—look out once more and tell me if they yet advance to the storm.”
With patient courage, Rebecca again took post at the lattice.
“What dost thou see?” demanded the wounded knight.
“Nothing but the cloud of arrows flying so thick as to dazzle mine eyes and hide the bowmen who shoot them.”
“That cannot endure,” remarked Ivanhoe. “If they press not on to carry the castle by pure force of arms, the archery may avail but little against stone walls and bulwarks. Look for the sable knight and see how he bears himself, for as the leader is, so will his followers be.”
“I see him not,” said Rebecca.
“Foul craven!” exclaimed Ivanhoe; “does he blench from the helm when the wind blows highest?”
“He blenches not! he blenches not!” cried Rebecca. “I see him now; he heads a body of men close under the outer barrier of the barbican. They pull down the piles and palisades; they hew down the barriers with axes. His high black plume floats over the throng, like a raven over the field of the slain. They have made a breach in the barriers—they rush in—they are thrust back! Front-de-Boeuf heads the defenders; I see his gigantic form above the press. They throng again to the breach, and the pass is disputed hand to hand, and man to man. Have mercy, God!”
She turned her head from the lattice, as if unable longer to endure a sight so terrible.
“Look forth again, Rebecca,” urged Ivanhoe, mistaking the cause of her retiring; “the archery must in some degree have ceased, since they are now fighting hand to hand. Look again; there is less danger.”
Rebecca again looked forth and almost immediately exclaimed: “Holy prophets of the law! Front-de-Boeuf and the Black Knight fight hand to hand in the breach, amid the roar of their followers, who watch the progress of the strife.” She then uttered a loud shriek, “He is down! he is down!”
“Who is down?” cried Ivanhoe; “tell me which has fallen?”
“The Black Knight,” answered Rebecca, faintly; then shouted with joyful eagerness, “But no—the name of the Lord of Hosts be blessed!—he is on foot again and fights as if there were twenty men’s strength in his single arm. His sword is broken—he snatches an ax from a yeoman—he presses Front-de-Boeuf with blow on blow. The giant stoops and totters like an oak under the steel of a woodsman—he falls—he falls!”
“Front-de-Boeuf?” exclaimed Ivanhoe.
“Front-de-Boeuf!” answered the Jewess. “His men rush to the rescue, headed by the haughty Templar—their united force compels the champion to pause—they drag Front-de-Boeuf within the walls.”
“The assailants have won the barriers, have they not?” Ivanhoe eagerly queried.
“They have! they have!” answered Rebecca; “and they press the besieged hard on the outer wall. Some plant ladders, some swarm like bees and endeavor to ascend upon the shoulders of each other. Down go stones, beams, and trunks of trees on their heads, and as fast as they bear the wounded to the rear, fresh men supply their places. Great God! hast thou given men thine own image, that it should be thus cruelly defaced by the hands of their brethren!”
“Think not of that,” said Ivanhoe. “This is no time for such thoughts. Who yield—who push their way?”
“The ladders are thrown down,” replied Rebecca, shuddering; “the soldiers lie groveling under them like crushed reptiles; the besieged have the better.”
“Saint George strike for us!” exclaimed the knight; “do the false yeomen give way?”
“No,” exclaimed Rebecca, “they bear themselves right yeomanly—the Black Knight approaches the postern with his huge ax—the thundering blows he deals you may hear above all the din of the battle. Stones and beams are hailed down on the bold champion—he regards them no more than if they were thistle-down or feathers!”
“By Saint John of Acre,” cried Ivanhoe, raising himself joyfully on his couch, “methought there was but one man in England that might do such a deed!”
“The postern-gate shakes,” continued Rebecca; “it crashes—it is splintered by his blows—they rush in—the outwork is won! Oh, God! they hurl the defenders from the battlements—they throw them into the moat—men, if ye indeed be men, spare them that can resist no longer!”
“The bridge—the bridge which communicates with the castle—have they won that pass?”
“No,” replied Rebecca. “The Templar has destroyed the plank on which they crossed—few of the defenders escaped with him into the castle—the shrieks and cries you hear tell the fate of the others! Alas! I see it is more difficult to look on victory than on battle.”
“What do they now, maiden?” asked Ivanhoe. “Look forth yet again; this is no time to faint at bloodshed.”
“It is over for the time,” answered Rebecca. “Our friends strengthen themselves within the outwork which they have mastered; it affords them so good a shelter from the foeman’s shot that the garrison only bestow a few bolts on it from interval to interval, as if to disquiet rather than to injure them.”
“Our friends,” said Wilfred, “will surely not abandon an enterprise so gloriously begun and so happily attained. Oh, no! I will put my faith in the good knight whose ax hath rent heart-of-oak and bars of iron.”