Grace Aguilar (England, 1816–1847) is considered the first Anglo-Jewish novelist. Her work was a response, in part, to the representation of Jews in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and to Thomas Macaulay’s views on Judaism. In her short career—she died in Frankfurt at the age of thirty-one of a spinal ailment affecting her muscles and lungs—she published poetry, fiction, essays, and a history of the Jews in England. Aguilar is the author of the popular novels Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters (1847), its sequel, A Mother’s Recompense (1851), and The Vale of Cedars; or, The Martyr (1850). Her nonfiction includes The Spirit of Judaism (1842), The Women of Israel (1845), and The Jewish Faith (1846). Her novel The Perez Family, released in 1843 by a publishing house dedicated to the edification of working-class Jews and therefore called Cheap Jewish Library, is an insider’s depiction of Jewish life in Victorian England. (The most famous slice of that life, Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto, would not appear until 1892.) Aguilar’s poems, published in journals such as The Occident, imagine the affection of Jews for the Spanish soil, and also deal with Jerusalem, the Sabbath, and the Jews in Russia. Her short story “The Escape,” published in 1844, is set in Portugal, from which her ancestors fled to escape the Inquisition, finding refuge in England.
The Escape. A Tale of 1755
Dark lowers our fate,
And terrible the storm that gathers o’er us;
But nothing, till that latest agony
Which severs thee from nature, shall unloose
This fixed and sacred hold. In thy dark prison-house;
In the terrific face of armed law;
Yea! on the scaffold, if it needs must be,
I never will forsake thee.
About the middle of the eighteenth century, the little town of Montes, situated some forty or fifty miles from Lisbon, was thrown into most unusual excitement by the magnificence attending the nuptials of Alvar Rodríguez and Almah Díaz: an excitement which, the extraordinary beauty of the bride, who, though the betrothed of Alvar from her childhood, had never been seen in Montes before, of course not a little increased. The little church of Montes looked gay and glittering for the large sums lavished by Alvar on the officiating priests, and in presents to their patron saints, had occasioned every picture, shrine, and image to blaze in uncovered gold and jewels, and the altar to be fed with the richest incense, and lighted with tapers of the finest wax, to do him honour.
The church was full; for, although the bridal party did not exceed twenty, the village appeared to have emptied itself there; Alvar’s munificence to all classes, on all occasions, having rendered him the universal idol, and caused the fame of that day’s rejoicing to extend many miles around.
There was nothing remarkable in the behaviour of either bride or bridegroom, except that both were decidedly more calm than such occasions usually warrant. Nay, in the manly countenance of Alvar ever and anon an expression seemed to flit, that in any but so true a son of the church would have been accounted scorn. In such a one, of course it was neither seen nor regarded, except by his bride; for at such times her eyes met his with an earnest and entreating glance, that the peculiar look was changed into a quiet, tender seriousness, which reassured her.
From the church they adjourned to the lordly mansion of Rodríguez, which, in the midst of its flowering orange and citron trees, stood about two miles from the town.
The remainder of the day passed in festivity. The banquet, and dance, and song, both within and around the house, diversified the scene and increased hilarity in all. By sunset, all but the immediate friends and relatives of the newly wedded had departed. Some splendid and novel fireworks from the heights having attracted universal attention, Alvar, with his usual indulgence, gave his servants and retainers permission to join the festive crowds; liberty, to all who wished it, was given the next two hours. In a very brief interval the house was cleared, with the exception of a young Moor, the secretary or book-keeper of Alvar, and four or five middle-aged domestics of both sexes.
Gradually, and it appeared undesignedly, the bride and her female companions were left alone, and for the first time the beautiful face of Almah was shadowed by emotion.
“Shall I, oh, shall I indeed be his?” she said, half aloud. “There are moments when our dread secret is so terrible; it seems to forebode discovery at the very moment it would be most agonizing to bear.”
“Hush, silly one!” was the reply of an older friend; “discovery is not so easily or readily accomplished. The persecuted and the nameless have purchased wisdom and caution at the price of blood—learned to deceive, that they may triumph—to conceal, that they may flourish still. Almah, we are not to fall!”
“I know it, Inez. A superhuman agency upholds us; we had been cast off, rooted out, plucked from the very face of the earth long since else. But there are times when human nature will shrink and tremble—when the path of deception and concealment allotted for us to tread seems fraught with danger at every turn. I know it is all folly, yet there is a dim foreboding, shadowing our fair horizon of joy as a hover- ing thunder-cloud. There has been suspicion, torture, death. Oh, if my Alvar—”
“Nay, Almah; this is childish. It is only because you are too happy, and happiness in its extent is ever pain. In good time comes your venerable guardian, to chide and silence all such foolish fancies. How many weddings have there been, and will there still be, like this? Come, smile, love, while I rearrange your veil.”
Almah obeyed, though the smile was faint, as if the soul yet trembled in its joy. On the entrance of Gonzalos, her guardian (she was an orphan and an heiress), he saw her veil was thrown around her, so as completely to envelope face and form. Taking his arm, and followed by all her female companions, she was hastily and silently led to a sort of ante-room or cabinet, opening, by a massive door concealed with tapestry, from the suite of rooms appropriated to the private use of the merchant and his family. There Alvar and his friends awaited her. A canopy, supported by four of the youngest males present, was held over the bride and bridegroom as they stood facing the east. A silver salver lay at their feet, and opposite stood an aged man, with a small, richly bound volume in his hand. It was open, and displayed letters and words of unusual form and sound. Another of Alvar’s friends stood near, holding a goblet of sacred wine; and to a third was given a slight and thin Venetian glass. After a brief and solemn pause, the old man read or rather chanted from the book he held, joined in parts by those around; and then he tasted the sacred wine, and passed it to the bride and bridegroom. Almah’s veil was upraised, for her to touch the goblet with her lips, now quivering with emotion, and not permitted to fall again. And Alvar, where now was the expression of scorn and contempt that had been stamped on his bold brow and curling lip before? Gone—lost before the powerful emotion which scarcely permitted his lifting the goblet a second time to his lips. Then, taking the Venetian glass, he broke it on the salver at his feet, and the strange rites were concluded.
Yet no words of congratulation came. Drawn together in a closer knot, while Alvar folded the now almost fainting Almah to his bosom, and said, in the deep, low tones of intense feeling, “Mine, mine for ever now—mine in the sight of our God, the God of the exile and the faithful; our fate, whatever it be, henceforth is one”; the old man lifted up his clasped hands, and prayed.
“God of the nameless and homeless,” he said, and it was in the same strange yet solemn-sounding language as before, “have mercy on these Thy servants, joined together in Thy Holy name, to share the lot on earth Thy will assigns them, with one heart and mind. Strengthen Thou them to keep the secret of their faith and race—to teach it to their offspring as they received it from their fathers. Pardon Thou them and us the deceit we do to keep holy Thy law and Thine inheritance. In the land of the persecutor, the exterminator, be Thou their shield, and save them for Thy Holy name. But if discovery and its horrible consequences—imprisonment, torture, death—await them, stengthen Thou them for their endurance—to die as they would live for Thee. Father, hear us! homeless and nameless upon earth, we are Thine own!”
“Aye, strengthen me for him, my husband; turn my woman weakness into Thy strength for him, Almighty Father,” the voiceless prayer with which Almah lifted up her pale face from her husband’s bosom, where it had rested during the whole of that strange and terrible prayer and in the calmness stealing on her throbbing heart, she read her answer.
It was some few minutes ere the excited spirits of the devoted few then present, male or female, master or servant, could subside into their wonted control. But such scenes, such feelings were not of rare occurrence; and ere the domestics of Rodríguez returned, there was nothing either in the mansion or its inmates to denote that anything uncommon had taken place during their absence.
The Portuguese are not fond of society at any time, so that Alvar and his young bride should after one week of festivity, live in comparative retirement, elicited no surprise. The former attended his house of business at Montes as usual; and whoever chanced to visit him at his beautiful estate, returned delighted with his entertainment and his hosts; so that, far and near, the merchant Alvar became noted alike for his munificence and the strict orthodox Catholicism in which he conducted his establishment.
And was Alvar Rodríguez indeed what he seemed? If so, what were those strange mysterious rites with which in secret he celebrated his marriage? For what were those many contrivances in his mansion, secret receptacles even from his own sitting-rooms, into which all kinds of forbidden food were conveyed from his very table, that his soul might not be polluted by disobedience? How did it so happen that one day in every year Alvar gave a general holiday—leave of absence for four and twenty hours, under some well-arranged pretence, to all, save those who entreated permission to remain with him? And that on that day, Alvar, his wife, his Moorish secretary, and all those domestics who had witnessed his marriage, spent in holy fast and prayer—permitting no particle of food or drink to pass their lips from eve unto eve; or if by any chance, the holiday could not be given, their several meals to be laid and served, yet so contriving that, while the food looked as if it had been partaken of not a portion had they touched? That the Saturday should be passed in seeming preparation for the Sunday, in cessation from work of any kind, and frequent prayer, was perhaps of trivial importance; but for the previous mysteries—mysteries known to Alvar, his wife, and five or six of his establishment, yet never by word or sign betrayed; how may we account for them? There may be some to whom the memory of such things, as common to their ancestors, may be yet familiar; but to by far the greater number of English readers, they are, in all probability, as incomprehensible as uncommon.
Alvar Rodríguez was a Jew. One of the many who, in Portugal and Spain, fulfilled the awful prophecy of their great lawgiver Moses, and bowed before the imaged saints and martyrs of the Catholic, to shrine the religion of their fathers yet closer in their hearts and homes. From father to son the secret of their faith and race descended, so early and mysteriously taught that little children imbibed it—not alone the faith, but so effectually to conceal it, as to avert and mystify, all inquisitorial questioning, long before they knew the meaning or necessity of what they learned.
How this was accomplished, how the religion of God was thus preserved in the very midst of persecution and intolerance, must ever remain a mystery, as, happily for Israel, such fearful training is no longer needed. But that it did exist, that Jewish children in the very midst of monastic and convent tuition, yet adhered to the religion of their fathers, never by word or sign betrayed the secret with which they were intrusted; and, in their turn, became husbands and fathers conveying their solemn and dangerous inheritance to their posterity—that such things were, there are those still amongst the Hebrews of England to affirm and recall, claiming among their own ancestry, but one generation removed, those who have thus concealed and thus adhered. It was the power of God, not the power of man. Human strength had been utterly inefficient. Torture and death would long before have annihilated every remnant of Israel’s devoted race. But it might not be; for God had spoken. And, as a living miracle, a lasting record of His truth, His justice, aye and mercy, Israel was preserved in the midst of danger, in the very face of death, and will be preserved for ever.
It was no mere rejoicing ceremony, that of marriage, amongst the disguised and hidden Israelites of Portugal and Spain. They were binding themselves to preserve and propagate a persecuted faith. They were no longer its sole repositors. Did the strength of one waver, all was at an end. They were united in the sweet links of love—framing for themselves new ties, new hopes, new blessings in a rising family—all of which, at one blow, might be destroyed. They existed in an atmosphere of death, yet they lived and flourished. But so situated, it was not strange that human emotion, both in Alvar and his bride, should on their wedding-day, have gained ascendancy; and the solemn hour which made them one in the sight of the God they worshipped, should have been fraught with a terror and a shuddering, of which Jewish lovers in free and happy England can have no knowledge.
Alvar Rodríguez was one of those high and noble spirits, on whom the chain of deceit and concealment weighed heavily; and there were times when it had been difficult to suppress and conceal his scorn of those outward observances which his apparent Catholicism compelled. When united to Almah, however, he had a stronger incentive than his own safety: and as time passed on, and he became a father, caution and circumspection, if possible, increased with the deep passionate feelings of tenderness towards the mother and child. As the boy grew and flourished, the first feelings of dread, which the very love he excited called forth at his birth subsided into a kind of tranquil calm, which even Almah’s foreboding spirit trusted would last, as the happiness of others of her race.
Though Alvar’s business was carried on both at Montes and at Lisbon, the bulk of both his own and his wife’s property was, by a strange chance, invested at Badajoz, a frontier town of Spain, and whence he had often intended to remove but had always been prevented. It happened that early the month of June, some affairs calling him to Lisbon, he resolved to delay removing it no longer, smiling at his young wife’s half solicitation to let it remain where it was, and playfully accusing her of superstition, a charge she cared not to deny. The night before his intended departure his young Moorish secretary, in other words, an Israelite of Barbary extraction, entered his private closet, with a countenance of entreaty and alarm, earnestly conjuring his master to give up his Lisbon expedition, and retire with his wife and son to Badajoz or Oporto, or some distant city, at least for a while. Anxiously Rodríguez inquired wherefore.
“You remember the Señor Leyva, your worship’s guest a week or two ago?”
“Perfectly. What of him?”
“Master, I like him not. If danger befall us it will come through him. I watched him closely, and every hour of his stay shrunk from him the more. He was a stranger?”
“Yes; benighted, and had lost his way. It was impossible to refuse him hospitality. That he stayed longer than he had need, I grant; but there is no cause of alarm in that—he liked his quarters?”
“Master,” replied the Moor, earnestly, “I do not believe his tale. He was no casual traveller. I cannot trust him.”
“You are not called upon to do so, man,” said Alvar, laughing. “What do you believe him to be, that you would inoculate me with your own baseless alarm?”
Hassan ben Ahmed’s answer, whatever it might be, for it was whispered fearfully in his master’s ear, had the effect of sending every drop of blood from Alvar’s face to his very heart. But he shook off the stagnating dread. He combated the prejudices of his follower as unreasonable and unfounded. Hassan’s alarm, however, could only be soothed by the fact, that so suddenly to change his plans would but excite suspicion. If Levya were what he feared, his visit must already have been followed by the usual terrific effects.
Alvar promised, however, to settle his affairs at Lisbon as speedily as he could, and return for Almah and his son, and convey them to some place of greater security until the imagined danger was passed.
In spite of his assumed indifference, however, Rodríguez could not bid his wife and child farewell without a pang of dread, which it was difficult to conceal. The step between life and death—security and destruction—was so small, it might be passed unconsciously, and then the strongest nerve might shudder at the dark abyss before him. Again and again he turned to go, and yet again returned; and it with a feeling literally of desperation he at length tore himself away.
A fearful trembling was on Almah’s heart as she gazed after him, but she would not listen to its voice.
“It is folly,” she said, self-upbraidingly. “My Alvar is ever chiding this too doubting heart. I will not disobey him, by fear and foreboding in his absence. The God of the nameless is with him and me,” and she raised her eyes to the blue arch above her, with an expression that needed not voice to mark it prayer.
About a week after Alvar’s departure, Almah was sitting by the cradle of her boy, watching his soft and rosy slumbers with a calm sweet thankfulness that such a treasure was her own. The season had been unusually hot and dry, but the apartment in which the young mother sat opened on a pleasant spot, thickly shaded with orange, lemon, and almond trees, and decked with a hundred other richly hued and richly scented plants; in the centre of which a fountain sent up its heavy showers, which fell back on the marble bed, with a splash and coolness peculiarly refreshing, and sparkled in the sun as glittering gems.
A fleet yet heavy step resounded from the garden, which seemed suddenly and forcibly restrained into a less agitated movement. A shadow fell between her and the sunshine, and, starting, Almah looked hastily up. Hassan ben Ahmed stood before her, a paleness on his swarthy cheek, and a compression on his nether lip, betraying strong emotion painfully restrained.
“My husband! Hassan. What news bring you of him? Why are you alone?”
He laid his hand on her arm, and answered in a voice which so quivered that only ears eager as her own could have distinguished his meaning.
“Lady, dear, dear lady, you have a firm and faithful heart. Oh! for the love of Him who calls on you to suffer, awake its strength and firmness. My dear, my honoured lady, sink not, fail not! O God of mercy, support her now!” he added, flinging himself on his knees before her, as Almah one moment sprang up with a smothered shriek, and then next sank back on her seat rigid as marble.
Not another word she needed. Hassan thought to have prepared, gradually to have told, his dread intelligence; but he had said enough. Called upon to suffer, and for Him her God—her doom was revealed in those brief words. One minute of such agonized struggle, that her soul and body seemed about to part beneath it; and the wife and mother roused herself to do. Lip, cheek, and brow vied in their ashen whiteness with her robe; the blue veins rose distended as cords; and the voice—had not Hassan gazed upon her, he had not known it as her own.
She commanded him to tell her briefly all, and even while he spoke, seemed revolving in her own mind the decision which not four and twenty hours after Hassan’s intelligence she put into execution.
It was as Ben Ahmed had feared. The known popularity and rumoured riches of Alvar Rodríguez had excited the jealousy of that secret and awful tribunal, the Inquisition, one of whose innumerable spies, under the feigned name of Leyva, had obtained entrance within Alvar’s hospitable wall. One unguarded word or movement, the faintest semblance of secrecy or caution, were all sufficient; nay, without these, more than a common share of wealth or felicity was enough for the unconscious victims to be marked, tracked, and seized, without preparation or suspicion of their fate. Alvar had chanced to mention his intended visit to Lisbon; and the better to conceal the agent of his arrest, as also to make it more secure, they waited till his arrival there, watched their opportunity, and seized and conveyed him to those cells whence few returned in life, propagating the charge of relapsed Judaism as the cause of his arrest. It was a charge too common for remark, and the power which interfered too mighty for resistance. The confusion of the arrest soon subsided; but it lasted long enough for the faithful Hassan to escape, and, by dint of very rapid travelling, reached Montes not four hours after his master’s seizure. The day was in consequence before them, and he ceased not to conjure his lady to fly at once; the officers of the Inquisition could scarcely be there before nightfall.
“You must take advantage of it, Hassan, and all of you who love me. For my child, my boy,” she had clasped to her bosom, and a convulsion contracted her beautiful features as she spoke, “you must take care of him; convey him to Holland or England. Take jewels and gold sufficient; and—and make him love his parents—he may never see either of them more. Hassan, Hassan, swear to protect my child!” she added, with a burst of such sudden and passionate agony it seemed as if life or reason must bend beneath it. Bewildered by her words, as terrified by her emotion, Ben Ahmed removed the trembling child from the fond arms that for the first time failed to support him, gave him hastily to the care of his nurse, who was also a Jewess, said a few words in Hebrew, detailing what had passed, beseeching her to prepare for flight, and then returned to his mistress. The effects of that prostrating agony remained, but she had so far conquered, as to seem outwardly calm; and in answer to his respectful and anxious looks, besought him not to fear for her, nor to dissuade her from her purpose, but to aid her in its accomplishment. She summoned her household around her, detailed what had befallen, and bade them seek their own safety in flight; and when in tears and grief they left her, and but those of her own faith remained, she solemnly committed her child to their care, and informed them of her own determination to proceed directly to Lisbon. In vain Hassan ben Ahmed conjured her to give up the idea; it was little short of madness. How could she aid his master? Why not secure her own safety, that if indeed he should escape, the blessing of her love would be yet preserved him?
“Do not fear for your master, Hassan,” was the calm reply; “ask not of my plans, for at this moment they seem but chaos, but of this be assured, we shall live or die together.”
More she revealed not; but when the officers of the Inquisition arrived, near nightfall, they found nothing but deserted walls. The magnificent furniture and splendid paintings which alone remained, of course were seized by the Holy Office, by whom Alvar’s property was also confiscated. Had his arrest been deferred three months longer, all would have gone—swept off by the same rapacious power, to whom great wealth was ever proof of great guilt—but as it was, the greater part, secured in Spain, remained untouched; a circumstance peculiarly fortunate, as Almah’s plans needed the aid of gold.
We have no space to linger on the mother’s feelings, as she parted from her boy; gazing on him, perhaps, for the last time. Yet she neither wept nor sighed. There was but one other feeling stronger in that gentle bosom—a wife’s devotion—and to that alone she might listen now.
Great was old Gonzalos’ terror and astonishment when Almah, attended only by Hassan ben Ahmed, and both attired in the Moorish costume, entered his dwelling and implored his concealment and aid. The arrest of Alvar Rodríguez had, of course, thrown every secret Hebrew into the greatest alarm, though none dared be evinced. Gonzalos’ only hope and consolation was that Almah and her child had escaped; and to see her in the very centre of danger, even to listen to her calmly proposed plans, seemed so like madness, that he used every effort to alarm her into their relinquishment. But this could not be; and with the darkest forebodings, the old man at length yielded to the stronger, more devoted spirit, with whom he had to deal.
His mistress once safely under Gonzalos’ roof, Ben Ahmed departed, under cover of night, in compliance with her earnest entreaties to rejoin her child, and to convey him and his nurse to England, that blessed land, where the veil of secrecy could be removed.
Excerpted from The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature by edited and with an introduction by Ilan Stavans. Copyright © 2005 by Ilan Stavans. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.