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בס"ד

Neela.

A Tale of the Jews in England.

By Miss Celia Moss.

We find the subjoined story in the Friendship's Offering of 1842, and as we do not believe that many of our readers have become familiar with it, we transfer it to our pages for their perusal, as a vivid portraiture of the dreadful state of mental agony and bodily sufferings to which the Israelites of former centuries were exposed for their crime of professing a belief in the Unity of the Godhead, and when they, despite of their painful lot, remained steadfast to their faith and to their God.

Will our young friends not take example by those noble martyrs, and vow to follow in their footsteps, and to remain faithful to the same holy faith now, when they are at liberty to worship God in the manner their conscience dictates, and when the name of Israel is no more a reproach in many an enlightened country? Will they vow this? Will they act up to this holy resolve? Surely they will, and not cast shame upon the memory of their honoured predecessors, who remained true to this heavenly gift, when all that was theirs on earth was becoming daily the spoil of relentless persecutors. And thus will they honour themselves likewise, and render the name of Israel a praise and a glory to all the nations of the earth.

I.

"Aye, aye, the old story—rapine, cruelty, and oppression! Could not Henry of England find a fitter instrument to execute his arbitrary decrees than old Richard Falkner?" And the knight threw down the king's warrant with a look of contempt which argued little for his loyalty.

The speaker was a blunt soldier, who had spent the greater part of his life in the camp or on the battle­field. Full of the prejudices of his age and country, he nevertheless possessed many high and honourable feelings. He had witnessed with indignation the meanness and injustice which characterized the conduct of Henry the Third towards the unfortunate wanderers of Israel. Detesting them as a sect, Sir Richard Falkner pitied them as victims; and his personal knowledge of one of the proscribed race, had gone far towards dissipating the rancour engendered by bigotry.

An Israelite had been many years settled in the village of Chesterton, about a mile from Sir Richard's domain; and, protected by its powerful baron, he had escaped in a great degree the persecutions which had ground his less fortunate brethren to the dust. A skilful physician, Rabbi Ephraim was the friend and benefactor of all who needed his assistance; and his benevolent character had gained him the name of the good Jew of Chesterton. He had one daughter, the only surviving child of a numerous family; and the sternest fanatic forgot to curse when he beheld the graceful form of Neela, the Jewess, supporting the feeble steps of her sickly and aged mother. But Rabbi Ephraim was no longer to be spared; for Sir Richard's exclamation had been called forth by an order from King Henry to demand of the Jew one thousand silver marks before the first of November, to which it wanted but two days.

At some distance from the village of Chesterton, and close to the sea, which in stormy weather washed its walls, stood the house of Ephraim; its plain but massive front looking out upon the expanse of waters, studded here and there with the white sails of some fishing-boat, looking like a sea-bird's wing in the distance. At the back of the house was an extensive garden, in which some of the latest flowers of the season were still blooming, and when Sir Richard arrived on his disagreeable mission, he reined in his horse to admire the beauty and neatness with which it was arranged. He had sat some minutes gazing when he was startled from his reverie by the re-appearance of the page whom he had sent forward to announce his coming to Ephraim: in answer to his question, the boy informed him that the house was closed, and no living soul was to be seen.

Falkner galloped hastily round to the front entrance, and knocked loudly at the door with the hilt of his sword; and after some delay it was opened by an aged female, whose eyes were red and swollen with weeping.

In answer to his request to see the Rabbi, she informed him that Ephraim had been dead three weeks. They had received intelligence only last evening of his death and burial in Italy, whither he had gone to arrange concerning his daughter's nuptials with the father of her affianced husband.

"Peace to his soul!" said the good knight, crossing himself, and forgetting in his sorrow at the tidings, that he had breathed a prayer for a heretic. He was about to turn his horse's head homeward, when he was arrested by the sound of what appeared to be a rapidly approaching multitude, whose approach was announced by cries resembling the whoops of savages.

"Down with the murdering Jews! Down with the sorcerers!—remember Hugh of Lincoln!—fire their house!—down with them!" Such were the exclamations of the crowd; and when Sir Richard turned to address the woman, she had already fled, apprehending that this was one of the popular tumults against the unfortunate Israelites, which at that time so often disgraced the people of England. Determined not to abandon the defenceless inmates of the dwelling to the fury of a mob who spared neither sex nor age, Falkner drew his sword, and giving his horse to the page, bade him ride over to the castle for assistance while he himself remained to protect the family of Ephraim.

Meanwhile the infuriate rabble were within sight, and to his surprise Falkner recognised in the thickest of the throng, and apparently leading them on, Sir Leslie Gower, brother to the Baron of Chesterton. At the sight of Sir Richard, the multitude halted for a moment, and Leslie Gower, rode forward to his side.

"Well met, gallant Sir Richard," said he, extending his mailed hand to his brother in arms; "Thou art here in good time to assist in punishing the vilest deed that hath ever disgraced the kingdom since Hugh of Lincoln was basely done to death."

"What mean ye?" demanded Falkner. "Why bring ye an armed mob against a house which contains only helpless and sorrowing women?"

"My brother's child—" said Gower, averting his face as if to conceal some powerful emotion.

"What of him?—what of the fair boy? I trust no evil!"­

"He is dead—murdered!" exclaimed Gower, hoarsely; and for a moment Sir Richard himself looked like a man who had been struck by the blow of an assassin. "Who hath done this?" said the old man, in an unsteady voice; "Who hath wrung a mother's heart, and destroyed a father's hope? Who could raise a hand against that lovely child?"

"Who murdered Hugh of Lincoln?" answered Leslie: "Who hath shed the blood of hundreds of Christian children? Who, but the accursed Jews! Art thou with us, Sir Richard Falkner, in the cry for vengeance?"

"Had my own brother raised his arm against Eugene Gower's son, I would have sheathed my blade in his heart! But are ye certain ye act not rashly in this business—have ye proof?"

"Unquestionable;—but while we tarry here they will escape. Forward, my men, and death to the Jews!" Again the crowd began to rush forward, filling the air with yells of fury, and forgetting in their excitement all the benefits Ephraim and his gentle child had heaped upon them for years. They only remembered they were of the proscribed race; they only thought of the murder of their master's son; and they thirsted for vengeance.

Horror-struck as Falkner had been by the news thus suddenly brought to him, he wished to prevent, if possible, the excesses which he knew would follow the entrance of the excited populace, headed as they were by one who had so much cause of hatred; and he hurriedly entreated Gower to enter the house with him alone.

"We are both armed," he said, "and with such numbers at hand, we can have no cause for fear." Gower smiled disdainfully at the mention of fear; but addressing a few words to his followers, he dismounted, and entered the house with Sir Richard.

There was no sound or sign of human being in the rooms through which they passed, and neither was in a mood to notice the splendour of their decoration. At length they opened the door of an apartment in which they heard murmured sounds, as if some one within were praying. The words that reached their ears were in a strange tongue, yet they sounded like words of sorrow. The room was lofty, and richly furnished in the Oriental style. Splendid hangings, rich carpets, mirrors, all that taste or luxury could devise, was there displayed, with a profusion such as England's king could not at that period command. Yet, withal it bore a desolate aspect. Embroidery work and female ornaments, were scattered about as if death or misfortune had arrested the hand of the fair owner in the midst of her employment. The room had been purposely darkened; and in one corner, standing on the ground, was a small silver lamp filled with oil, which shed a dim sepulchral light around. And near it, on low cushions, sat two females, both so much absorbed in their occupation, as not to perceive the entrance of the strangers.

The younger lady was reading in a sweet but solemn tone, a portion of the Hebrew prayers; and there was something so touching in the expression of her pale but beautiful countenance, and sad resignation of look and attitude, that Sir Richard was moved almost to tears, as he thought of her probable fate. The supposition that so fair and delicate a creature could be a participator in the shedding of blood, seemed too monstrous to be entertained. She did not appear to be more than seventeen; although her full rounded figure and sunny complexion betrayed her eastern origin. There was no tinge of colour on her check; but the ripe red lip contrasted beautifully with her white teeth. Her eyes were of the darkest shade of blue, and their long black lashes gave them a thoughtful and pensive expression. Her hair, of a glossy jet, was thrown carelessly back from her face, and fell in thick tresses almost to her feet; the pearl chaplet with which she usually bound them lying neglected on a marble table near her. Her dress, of violet-coloured silk, made in the oriental style, was without ornament of any kind, and a white embroidered veil thrown over the back of her head, formed a graceful drapery round her fair shoulders. Still there was an air of negligence in her attire, rich as it was, which showed the heart of the wearer to be too full of sorrow for womanly vanity. The other female still bore traces of the beauty which had distinguished her early years; but sickness and sorrow had worn her to a shadow, and seemed hurrying her to an untimely grave.

Gower slowly and silently advanced till he stood by the side of the younger female, then laying his hand on her shoulder, said in a loud voice—"I arrest you, Neela, daughter of Ephraim, commonly called the Jew of Chesterton, in the name of our lord the King, for committing, or aiding in, the murder of Eugene, only son of Baron Gower, of Chesterton. It is my business also, to arrest the aforesaid Ephraim, and Naomi his wife, as participators in the same foul crime; and I demand that you instantly discover the place of his concealment."

Neela had arisen at the first sound of Gower's voice, and stood before him as pale as marble, yet betraying no sign of fear; but when he concluded, she said in a voice, trembling with emotion, "My father is beyond thy reach: he rests in a peaceful grave on the distant shores of Italy."

"Woman, I am not to be deceived by a feigned tale of death!" answered Gower, sternly. "The torture and the prison, perchance, may draw forth the truth;—thou and thine ancient accomplice must go forth with me."

"Nazarene!" replied. Neela, her lip curling with scorn as she spoke, "it is for thee and those of thy creed to speak falsely. What truth can be expected from men, who, professing a religion of peace and love, tear from their houses and altars, and punish by a shameful death, those whose only crime is that they worship God according to the rites of their fathers?"

"A less scornful tone would suit thy situation better," said Gower; and then he added in a lower voice, which reached only the ear of Neela: "It is my turn to triumph now!" The maiden did not answer; for her aged mother stood beside her, gazing anxiously into her face as if she wished to read there the meaning of this intrusion on their solitude. Neela threw her arms around her parent, exclaiming in tones of agony, "Oh, my mother, why hast thou lived to see this day?"

"What meanest thou, my beloved child? Why are the rude eyes of strangers gazing on our sorrows?"

"Mother," said Neela, firmly, "that man hath spoken of a fearful crime—of the murder of the fair young child whom we loved so well; and he hath spoken darkly too of our being implicated in the deed. More I know not, save that he is come hither to drag us to the prison cell,—perhaps to death!"

"But we are innocent, my child."

"Alas, what will that avail us?—to be accused is to be condemned; for when did Nazarene show justice or mercy to the Hebrew?"

Sir. Richard Falkner had stood a pained and unwilling listener, without uttering a word; but he narrowly watched the countenance of Gower, and a dark suspicion entered his mind, which, however, he chased away the next moment, as something too detestable for belief. In the mean time, the crowd without were growing impatient; they thirsted to begin their terrible drama; and as the moments flew by, and Gower came not forth, their impatience could no longer be restrained.

"The witches will escape us—why do we tarry here?"—said one, giving vent at length to his long smothered fury. "Let us fire the building, and burn them in their den!" Fortunately, however, there was no fire near enough to carry the project into effect; and, disappointed in their search, some of the most desperate rushed into the house with loud outcries.

Neela folded her arms still more closely around her mother in that moment of dread. Fierce faces were now filling up the doorway; but the sight of those helpless women made the crowd pause for an instant. They gazed in silence upon the lovely countenance of the Hebrew girl; but it did not suit the purpose of Leslie Gower to allow the calm to continue.

"Behold," he cried aloud; "behold the sorceress who has destroyed your master's child; not from hatred to that fair boy, but in mockery of the sufferings of the Crucified, whose name is too holy to breathe in her presence! The blood of my brother's son cries out from the earth. Men of Chesterton, shall it cry in vain? Has the accursed one cast a spell upon ye?—Smite, smite in the name of the Lord!" This appeal had the desired effect. They sprang like tigers towards their victims; and one unmanly villain, seizing a silver branch from the table, was about to fling it at the defenceless girl, when a powerful arm dashed him to the earth and the giant form of Sir Richard Falkner stood between the crowd and the object of their wrath. While waving his sword above his head, he shouted aloud, "He who attempts violence to these women must reach them through my heart!" The assailants paused and seemed irresolute; but again the voice of Gower was heard urging them on.

"They have bewitched the good knight by their spells," he cried; "but heed him not,"—and suiting the action to the word, he thrust furiously at Sir Richard. Leslie Gower was young and vigorous; and although Falkner fought well and long, he was at length overpowered. During the conflict, a band of ruffians had forcibly separated the mother and child, and while one trampled on the senseless form of Naomi, another had wound his hand in the long tresses of her daughter, and, despite of her struggles, was tearing her away from her bleeding parent, where the crowd around the door suddenly gave way, and a faint cry of "The Baron! The Baron!" broke upon the ear of Neela.

"My God! thou hast not yet forsaken us!" she exclaimed; in a tone of deep thankfulness. It was indeed the Baron of Chesterton, who, accompanied by several armed followers, now entered the scene of violence, and well-nigh of murder.

The sword dropped from the hand of Leslie Gower, while the discomfited vassals, judging from the frown on the Baron's brow how little he was pleased by their barbarous zeal, hastily retreated, and the sobs of Neela, as she bent over the inanimate and bleeding form of her mother, was all that broke the silence.

Sir Richard Falkner, pale, wounded, and exhausted, leaned on his broken sword, his manly face crimsoned with the shame of defeat; while Leslie Gower, disappointed even in the moment of triumph, stood gazing with a look of rage on the brother who through life had defeated his dearest hopes. From childhood his had been an envious and repining spirit. The second son of a powerful and wealthy baron, he hated the elder, who stood between him and the inheritance, and cursed the fate which had made him younger. Possessing strong passions, and incapable of noble or generous feeling, he yet had sufficient craft to veil his real character from those with whom he came in contact, and succeeded in gaining the hearts of his father's vassals by his specious manners. One thing had seemed to favour his hopes: his elder brother grew sickly and feeble, and his death was looked to by the aspiring Leslie as a thing not only probable, but certain. In the dark recesses of his heart he rejoiced, although he outwardly seemed to mourn over his decay, and all were blinded by his pretended affection, with the exception of Eugene, the young baron. Endowed by nature with keen penetration, and the reverse of his brother in character and feelings, he alone pierced the veil that shrouded the soul of Leslie; but he concealed his knowledge, for he knew it was essential to his own safety not to appear to doubt.

Unwilling to await at home the slow progress of what he deemed certain decay, Leslie demanded and obtained permission of his father to proceed to the Holy Land, and to join the crusaders in the war against the Saracens. He had scarcely been in Palestine a year, when tidings reached him that his brother had been perfectly restored to health by the skill of a Jewish physician, and was wedded to the daughter of a neighbouring baron. Shortly after, he learned that his father was dead, and this determined him to return home; for he did not yet despair, by fair means or foul, of getting rid of his brother. On his journey he was taken prisoner, and, after seven years' captivity, reached Chesterton in time to celebrate the sixth birthday of his brother's son. It needed all his self-command to repress the demon at his heart, as Eugene proudly showed him the lovely boy, and secretly cursing both; he vowed yet to be Baron of Chesterton.

He sought out the Jewish doctor who had restored his brother to health, and offered him immense wealth to destroy both father and son by poison; but Ephraim rejected his proposals with scorn, and Gower swore vengeance. Previously to this, he had seen Neela, and, dazzled by her beauty, had wooed her as a noble of England only could woo one of the outcasts of Judah. Her indignant rejection of his proposals was another motive for revenge.

It was a common thing in those days to accuse the Jews of crucifying Christian children; and only the year before, eighteen had been executed on a charge equally monstrous and absurd, of sacrificing in this manner a child called Hugh of Lincoln. To interested and fanatical judges, such things were not hard to prove, and Leslie, who knew neither pity nor remorse, eagerly seized upon the vulgar prejudice to work out his own dark schemes.

It was easy to get rid of the baron's child, and accuse the Jew and his daughter of the crime; and, aided by a single accomplice, who had been his own attendant from infancy, he set about accomplishing his purposes.

Eugene had been made acquainted by Ephraim, before his departure from England, with his brother's baseness; and he rejoiced when Leslie departed for the court of King Henry.

Secure, as he imagined, in his absence, the baron had gone over to the neighbouring town of Southampton, with his lady, for a day; and, on his return, was horrified by the intelligence that the nurse had suddenly disappeared with his child. That evening, while the distracted parents were searching for the lost one,

Leslie Gower returned from the court, then held at Winchester, and at once pointed suspicion towards the house of Ephraim. Then some one remembered having seen the nurse and her charge upon the beach, near the Jew's house, where all traces were lost. The rest has been told. The baron no sooner heard of the danger which threatened Neela and her mother, than he hastened to prevent the fatal results which, but for his timely arrival, must have ensued.

"Thou art pale and terrified, poor girl!" said he, turning to the agitated Neela, who was attempting to raise her unconscious parent, "and art more in need of assistance than enabled to afford it.—Behold thy work!" he continued, as he raised the bleeding form of Naomi, and laid her on a couch, while he gazed sternly at his brother. "Did it not suffice that one murder should blacken thy soul ?—I had forgotten thee, my brave friend," he added, turning to Sir Richard. "But forgive me, for sorrow presses heavily on my head!"

Falkner grasped the baron's hand warmly, as the latter bent his head to hide the tears that rolled down his cheeks.

(To be continued.)