Fond wretch! and what canst thou relate,
But deeds of sorrow, shame, and sin?
Thy deeds are proved—thou know’st thy fate;
But come, thy tale—begin—begin.
But I have griefs of other kind,
Troubles and sorrows more severe;
Give me to ease my tortured mind,
Lend to my woes a patient ear;
And let me, if I may not find
A friend to help—find one to hear.
—Crabbe’s Hall of Justice
When Urfried had with clamours and menaces driven Rebecca back to the apartment from which she had sallied, she proceeded to conduct the unwilling Cedric into a small apartment, the door of which she heedfully secured. Then fetching from a cupboard a stoup of wine and two flagons, she placed them on the table, and said in a tone rather asserting a fact than asking a question, “Thou art Saxon, father—Deny it not,” she continued, observing that Cedric hastened not to reply; “the sounds of my native language are sweet to mine ears, though seldom heard save from the tongues of the wretched and degraded serfs on whom the proud Normans impose the meanest drudgery of this dwelling. Thou art a Saxon, father—a Saxon, and, save as thou art a servant of God, a freeman.—Thine accents are sweet in mine ear.”
“Do not Saxon priests visit this castle, then?” replied Cedric; “it were, methinks, their duty to comfort the outcast and oppressed children of the soil.”
“They come not—or if they come, they better love to revel at the boards of their conquerors,” answered Urfried, “than to hear the groans of their countrymen—so, at least, report speaks of them—of myself I can say little. This castle, for ten years, has opened to no priest save the debauched Norman chaplain who partook the nightly revels of Front-de-Boeuf, and he has been long gone to render an account of his stewardship.—But thou art a Saxon—a Saxon priest, and I have one question to ask of thee.”
“I am a Saxon,” answered Cedric, “but unworthy, surely, of the name of priest. Let me begone on my way—I swear I will return, or send one of our fathers more worthy to hear your confession.”
“Stay yet a while,” said Urfried; “the accents of the voice which thou hearest now will soon be choked with the cold earth, and I would not descend to it like the beast I have lived. But wine must give me strength to tell the horrors of my tale.” She poured out a cup, and drank it with a frightful avidity, which seemed desirous of draining the last drop in the goblet. “It stupifies,” she said, looking upwards as she finished her drought, “but it cannot cheer—Partake it, father, if you would hear my tale without sinking down upon the pavement.” Cedric would have avoided pledging her in this ominous conviviality, but the sign which she made to him expressed impatience and despair. He complied with her request, and answered her challenge in a large wine-cup; she then proceeded with her story, as if appeased by his complaisance.
“I was not born,” she said, “father, the wretch that thou now seest me. I was free, was happy, was honoured, loved, and was beloved. I am now a slave, miserable and degraded—the sport of my masters’ passions while I had yet beauty—the object of their contempt, scorn, and hatred, since it has passed away. Dost thou wonder, father, that I should hate mankind, and, above all, the race that has wrought this change in me? Can the wrinkled decrepit hag before thee, whose wrath must vent itself in impotent curses, forget she was once the daughter of the noble Thane of Torquilstone, before whose frown a thousand vassals trembled?”
“Thou the daughter of Torquil Wolfganger!” said Cedric, receding as he spoke; “thou—thou—the daughter of that noble Saxon, my father’s friend and companion in arms!”
“Thy father’s friend!” echoed Urfried; “then Cedric called the Saxon stands before me, for the noble Hereward of Rotherwood had but one son, whose name is well known among his countrymen. But if thou art Cedric of Rotherwood, why this religious dress?—hast thou too despaired of saving thy country, and sought refuge from oppression in the shade of the convent?”
“It matters not who I am,” said Cedric; “proceed, unhappy woman, with thy tale of horror and guilt!—Guilt there must be—there is guilt even in thy living to tell it.”
“There is—there is,” answered the wretched woman, “deep, black, damning guilt,—guilt, that lies like a load at my breast—guilt, that all the penitential fires of hereafter cannot cleanse.—Yes, in these halls, stained with the noble and pure blood of my father and my brethren—in these very halls, to have lived the paramour of their murderer, the slave at once and the partaker of his pleasures, was to render every breath which I drew of vital air, a crime and a curse.”
“Wretched woman!” exclaimed Cedric. “And while the friends of thy father—while each true Saxon heart, as it breathed a requiem for his soul, and those of his valiant sons, forgot not in their prayers the murdered Ulrica—while all mourned and honoured the dead, thou hast lived to merit our hate and execration—lived to unite thyself with the vile tyrant who murdered thy nearest and dearest—who shed the blood of infancy, rather than a male of the noble house of Torquil Wolfganger should survive—with him hast thou lived to unite thyself, and in the hands of lawless love!”
“In lawless hands, indeed, but not in those of love!” answered the hag; “love will sooner visit the regions of eternal doom, than those unhallowed vaults.—No, with that at least I cannot reproach myself—hatred to Front-de-Boeuf and his race governed my soul most deeply, even in the hour of his guilty endearments.”
“You hated him, and yet you lived,” replied Cedric; “wretch! was there no poniard—no knife—no bodkin!—Well was it for thee, since thou didst prize such an existence, that the secrets of a Norman castle are like those of the grave. For had I but dreamed of the daughter of Torquil living in foul communion with the murderer of her father, the sword of a true Saxon had found thee out even in the arms of thy paramour!”
“Wouldst thou indeed have done this justice to the name of Torquil?” said Ulrica, for we may now lay aside her assumed name of Urfried; “thou art then the true Saxon report speaks thee! for even within these accursed walls, where, as thou well sayest, guilt shrouds itself in inscrutable mystery, even there has the name of Cedric been sounded—and I, wretched and degraded, have rejoiced to think that there yet breathed an avenger of our unhappy nation.—I also have had my hours of vengeance—I have fomented the quarrels of our foes, and heated drunken revelry into murderous broil—I have seen their blood flow—I have heard their dying groans!—Look on me, Cedric—are there not still left on this foul and faded face some traces of the features of Torquil?”
“Ask me not of them, Ulrica,” replied Cedric, in a tone of grief mixed with abhorrence; “these traces form such a resemblance as arises from the graves of the dead, when a fiend has animated the lifeless corpse.”
“Be it so,” answered Ulrica; “yet wore these fiendish features the mask of a spirit of light when they were able to set at variance the elder Front-de-Boeuf and his son Reginald! The darkness of hell should hide what followed, but revenge must lift the veil, and darkly intimate what it would raise the dead to speak aloud. Long had the smouldering fire of discord glowed between the tyrant father and his savage son—long had I nursed, in secret, the unnatural hatred—it blazed forth in an hour of drunken wassail, and at his own board fell my oppressor by the hand of his own son—such are the secrets these vaults conceal!—Rend asunder, ye accursed arches,” she added, looking up towards the roof, “and bury in your fall all who are conscious of the hideous mystery!”
“And thou, creature of guilt and misery,” said Cedric, “what became thy lot on the death of thy ravisher?”
“Guess it, but ask it not.—Here—here I dwelt, till age, premature age, has stamped its ghastly features on my countenance—scorned and insulted where I was once obeyed, and compelled to bound the revenge which had once such ample scope, to the efforts of petty malice of a discontented menial, or the vain or unheeded curses of an impotent hag—condemned to hear from my lonely turret the sounds of revelry in which I once partook, or the shrieks and groans of new victims of oppression.”
“Ulrica,” said Cedric, “with a heart which still, I fear, regrets the lost reward of thy crimes, as much as the deeds by which thou didst acquire that meed, how didst thou dare to address thee to one who wears this robe? Consider, unhappy woman, what could the sainted Edward himself do for thee, were he here in bodily presence? The royal Confessor was endowed by heaven with power to cleanse the ulcers of the body, but only God himself can cure the leprosy of the soul.”
“Yet, turn not from me, stern prophet of wrath,” she exclaimed, “but tell me, if thou canst, in what shall terminate these new and awful feelings that burst on my solitude—Why do deeds, long since done, rise before me in new and irresistible horrors? What fate is prepared beyond the grave for her, to whom God has assigned on earth a lot of such unspeakable wretchedness? Better had I turn to Woden, Hertha, and Zernebock—to Mista, and to Skogula, the gods of our yet unbaptized ancestors, than endure the dreadful anticipations which have of late haunted my waking and my sleeping hours!”
“I am no priest,” said Cedric, turning with disgust from this miserable picture of guilt, wretchedness, and despair; “I am no priest, though I wear a priest’s garment.”
“Priest or layman,” answered Ulrica, “thou art the first I have seen for twenty years, by whom God was feared or man regarded; and dost thou bid me despair?”
“I bid thee repent,” said Cedric. “Seek to prayer and penance, and mayest thou find acceptance! But I cannot, I will not, longer abide with thee.”
“Stay yet a moment!” said Ulrica; “leave me not now, son of my father’s friend, lest the demon who has governed my life should tempt me to avenge myself of thy hard-hearted scorn—Thinkest thou, if Front-de-Boeuf found Cedric the Saxon in his castle, in such a disguise, that thy life would be a long one?—Already his eye has been upon thee like a falcon on his prey.”
“And be it so,” said Cedric; “and let him tear me with beak and talons, ere my tongue say one word which my heart doth not warrant. I will die a Saxon—true in word, open in deed—I bid thee avaunt!—touch me not, stay me not!—The sight of Front-de-Boeuf himself is less odious to me than thou, degraded and degenerate as thou art.”
“Be it so,” said Ulrica, no longer interrupting him; “go thy way, and forget, in the insolence of thy superority, that the wretch before thee is the daughter of thy father’s friend.—Go thy way—if I am separated from mankind by my sufferings—separated from those whose aid I might most justly expect—not less will I be separated from them in my revenge!—No man shall aid me, but the ears of all men shall tingle to hear of the deed which I shall dare to do!—Farewell!—thy scorn has burst the last tie which seemed yet to unite me to my kind—a thought that my woes might claim the compassion of my people.”
“Ulrica,” said Cedric, softened by this appeal, “hast thou borne up and endured to live through so much guilt and so much misery, and wilt thou now yield to despair when thine eyes are opened to thy crimes, and when repentance were thy fitter occupation?”
“Cedric,” answered Ulrica, “thou little knowest the human heart. To act as I have acted, to think as I have thought, requires the maddening love of pleasure, mingled with the keen appetite of revenge, the proud consciousness of power; droughts too intoxicating for the human heart to bear, and yet retain the power to prevent. Their force has long passed away—Age has no pleasures, wrinkles have no influence, revenge itself dies away in impotent curses. Then comes remorse, with all its vipers, mixed with vain regrets for the past, and despair for the future!—Then, when all other strong impulses have ceased, we become like the fiends in hell, who may feel remorse, but never repentance.—But thy words have awakened a new soul within me—Well hast thou said, all is possible for those who dare to die!—Thou hast shown me the means of revenge, and be assured I will embrace them. It has hitherto shared this wasted bosom with other and with rival passions—henceforward it shall possess me wholly, and thou thyself shalt say, that, whatever was the life of Ulrica, her death well became the daughter of the noble Torquil. There is a force without beleaguering this accursed castle—hasten to lead them to the attack, and when thou shalt see a red flag wave from the turret on the eastern angle of the donjon, press the Normans hard—they will then have enough to do within, and you may win the wall in spite both of bow and mangonel.—Begone, I pray thee—follow thine own fate, and leave me to mine.”
Cedric would have enquired farther into the purpose which she thus darkly announced, but the stern voice of Front-de-Boeuf was heard, exclaiming, “Where tarries this loitering priest? By the scallop-shell of Compostella, I will make a martyr of him, if he loiters here to hatch treason among my domestics!”
“What a true prophet,” said Ulrica, “is an evil conscience! But heed him not—out and to thy people—Cry your Saxon onslaught, and let them sing their war-song of Rollo, if they will; vengeance shall bear a burden to it.”
As she thus spoke, she vanished through a private door, and Reginald Front-de-Boeuf entered the apartment. Cedric, with some difficulty, compelled himself to make obeisance to the haughty Baron, who returned his courtesy with a slight inclination of the head.
“Thy penitents, father, have made a long shrift—it is the better for them, since it is the last they shall ever make. Hast thou prepared them for death?”
“I found them,” said Cedric, in such French as he could command, “expecting the worst, from the moment they knew into whose power they had fallen.”
“How now, Sir Friar,” replied Front-de-Boeuf, “thy speech, methinks, smacks of a Saxon tongue?”
“I was bred in the convent of St Withold of Burton,” answered Cedric.
“Ay?” said the Baron; “it had been better for thee to have been a Norman, and better for my purpose too; but need has no choice of messengers. That St Withold’s of Burton is an owlet’s nest worth the harrying. The day will soon come that the frock shall protect the Saxon as little as the mail-coat.”
“God’s will be done,” said Cedric, in a voice tremulous with passion, which Front-de-Boeuf imputed to fear.
“I see,” said he, “thou dreamest already that our men-at-arms are in thy refectory and thy ale-vaults. But do me one cast of thy holy office, and, come what list of others, thou shalt sleep as safe in thy cell as a snail within his shell of proof.”
“Speak your commands,” said Cedric, with suppressed emotion.
“Follow me through this passage, then, that I may dismiss thee by the postern.”
And as he strode on his way before the supposed friar, Front-de-Boeuf thus schooled him in the part which he desired he should act.
“Thou seest, Sir Friar, yon herd of Saxon swine, who have dared to environ this castle of Torquilstone—Tell them whatever thou hast a mind of the weakness of this fortalice, or aught else that can detain them before it for twenty-four hours. Meantime bear thou this scroll—But soft—canst read, Sir Priest?”
“Not a jot I,” answered Cedric, “save on my breviary; and then I know the characters, because I have the holy service by heart, praised be Our Lady and St Withold!”
“The fitter messenger for my purpose.—Carry thou this scroll to the castle of Philip de Malvoisin; say it cometh from me, and is written by the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and that I pray him to send it to York with all the speed man and horse can make. Meanwhile, tell him to doubt nothing, he shall find us whole and sound behind our battlement—Shame on it, that we should be compelled to hide thus by a pack of runagates, who are wont to fly even at the flash of our pennons and the tramp of our horses! I say to thee, priest, contrive some cast of thine art to keep the knaves where they are, until our friends bring up their lances. My vengeance is awake, and she is a falcon that slumbers not till she has been gorged.”
“By my patron saint,” said Cedric, with deeper energy than became his character, “and by every saint who has lived and died in England, your commands shall be obeyed! Not a Saxon shall stir from before these walls, if I have art and influence to detain them there.”
“Ha!” said Front-de-Boeuf, “thou changest thy tone, Sir Priest, and speakest brief and bold, as if thy heart were in the slaughter of the Saxon herd; and yet thou art thyself of kindred to the swine?”
Cedric was no ready practiser of the art of dissimulation, and would at this moment have been much the better of a hint from Wamba’s more fertile brain. But necessity, according to the ancient proverb, sharpens invention, and he muttered something under his cowl concerning the men in question being excommunicated outlaws both to church and to kingdom.
“’Despardieux’,” answered Front-de-Boeuf, “thou hast spoken the very truth—I forgot that the knaves can strip a fat abbot, as well as if they had been born south of yonder salt channel. Was it not he of St Ives whom they tied to an oak-tree, and compelled to sing a mass while they were rifling his mails and his wallets?—No, by our Lady—that jest was played by Gualtier of Middleton, one of our own companions-at-arms. But they were Saxons who robbed the chapel at St Bees of cup, candlestick and chalice, were they not?”
“They were godless men,” answered Cedric.
“Ay, and they drank out all the good wine and ale that lay in store for many a secret carousal, when ye pretend ye are but busied with vigils and primes!—Priest, thou art bound to revenge such sacrilege.”