The Vale of Cedars

- By Grace Aguilar
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Grace Aguilar (2 June 1816 – 16 September 1847) was an English novelist, poet and writer on Jewish history and religion. Although she had been writing since childhood, much of her work was published posthumously. Among those are her best known works, the novels Home Influence and A Mother's Recompense. Aguilar was the eldest child of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Portugal who settled in the London Borough of Hackney. An early illness resulted in her being educated by her parents, especially her mother, who taught her the tenets of Judaism. Later, her father taught the history of Spanish and Portuguese Jews during his own bout with tuberculosis which had led the family to move to the English coast. After surviving the measles at the age of 19, she began to embark on a serious writing career, even though her physical health never completely recovered.
"They had met, and they had parted; Time had closed o'er each again, Leaving lone the weary hearted Mournfully to wear his chain."-MS.
A deliciously cool, still evening, had succeeded the intense heat of a Spanish summer day, throwing rich shadows and rosy gleams on a wild, rude mountain pass in central Spain. Massive crags and gigantic trees seemed to contest dominion over the path, if path it could be called; where the traveller, if he would persist in going onwards, could only make his way by sometimes scrambling over rocks, whose close approach from opposite sides presented a mere fissure covered with flowers and brushwood, through which the slimmest figure would fail to penetrate; sometimes wading through rushing and brawling streams, whose rapid currents bore many a jagged branch and craggy fragment along with them; sometimes threading the intricacies of a dense forest, recognizing the huge pine, the sweet acorn oak, the cork tree, interspersed with others of lesser growth, but of equally wild perplexing luxuriance. On either side-at times so close that two could not walk abreast, at others so divided that forests and streams intervened-arose mountain walls seeming to reach the very heavens, their base covered with trees and foliage, which gradually thinning, left their dark heads totally barren, coming out in clear relief against the deep blue sky.
That this pass led to any inhabited district was little probable, for it grew wilder and wilder, appearing to lead to the very heart of the Sierra Toledo-a huge ridge traversing Spain. By human foot it had evidently been seldom trod; yet on this particular evening a traveller there wended his solitary way. His figure was slight to boyishness, but of fair proportion, and of such graceful agility of movement, that the obstacles in his path, which to others of stouter mould and heavier step might have been of serious inconvenience, appeared by him as unnoticed as unfelt. The deep plume of his broad-rimmed hat could not conceal the deep blue restless eyes, the delicate complexion, and rich brown clustering hair; the varying expression of features, which if not regularly handsome, were bright with intelligence and truth, and betraying like a crystal mirror every impulse of the heart-characteristics both of feature and disposition wholly dissimilar to the sons of Spain.
His physiognomy told truth. Arthur Stanley was, as his name implied, an Englishman of noble family; one of the many whom the disastrous wars of the Roses had rendered voluntary exiles. His father and four brothers had fallen in battle at Margaret's side. Himself and a twin brother, when scarcely fifteen, were taken prisoners at Tewkesbury, and for three years left to languish in prison. Wishing to conciliate the still powerful family of Stanley, Edward offered the youths liberty and honor if they would swear allegiance to himself. They refused peremptorily; and with a refinement of cruelty more like Richard of Gloucester than himself, Edward ordered one to the block, the other to perpetual imprisonment. They drew lots, and Edwin Stanley perished. Arthur, after an interval, succeeded in effecting his escape, and fled from England, lingered in Provence a few months, and then unable to bear an inactive life, hastened to the Court of Arragon; to the heir apparent of which, he bore letters of introduction, from men of rank and influence, and speedily distinguished himself in the wars then agitating Spain. The character of the Spaniards-impenetrable and haughty reserve-occasioned, in general, prejudice and dislike towards all foreigners. But powerful as was their pride, so was their generosity; and the young and lonely stranger, who had thrown himself so trustingly and frankly on their friendship, was universally received with kindness and regard. In men of lower natures, indeed, prejudice still lingered; but this was of little matter; Arthur speedily took his place among the noblest chivalry of Spain; devoted to the interests of the King of Sicily, but still glorying in the name and feeling of an Englishman, he resolved, in his young enthusiasm, to make his country honored in himself.
He had been five years in Spain, and was now four and twenty; but few would have imagined him that age, so frank and free and full of thoughtless mirth and hasty impulse was his character. These last fifteen months, however, a shadow seemed to have fallen over him, not deep enough to create remark, but felt by himself. His feelings, always ardent, had been all excited, and were all concentrated, on a subject so wrapt in mystery, that the wish to solve it engrossed his whole being. Except when engaged in the weary stratagem, the rapid march, and actual conflict, necessary for Ferdinand's interest, but one thought, composed of many, occupied his mind, and in solitude so distractingly, that he could never rest; he would traverse the country for miles, conscious indeed of what he sought, but perfectly unconscious where he went.
It was in one of these moods he had entered the pass we have described, rejoicing in its difficulties, but not thinking where it led, or what place he sought, when a huge crag suddenly rising almost perpendicularly before him, effectually roused him from his trance. Outlet there was none. All around him towered mountains, reaching to the skies. The path was so winding, that, as he looked round bewildered, he could not even imagine how he came there. To retrace his steps, seemed quite as difficult as to proceed. The sun too had declined, or was effectually concealed by the towering rocks, for sudden darkness seemed around him. There was but one way, and Stanley prepared to scale the precipitous crag before him with more eagerness than he would a beaten path. He threw off his cloak, folded it in the smallest possible compass, and secured it like a knapsack to his shoulders, slung his sword over his neck, and, with a vigorous spring, which conquered several paces of slippery rock at once, commenced the ascent. Some brushwood, and one or two stunted trees, gave him now and then a hold for his hands; and occasional ledges in the rock, a resting for his foot; but still one false step, one failing nerve, and he must have fallen backwards and been dashed to pieces; but to Arthur the danger was his safety. Where he was going, indeed he knew not. He could see no further than the summit of the crag, which appeared like a line against the sky; but any bewilderment were preferable to the strange stagnation towards outward objects, which had enwrapped him ten minutes before.
Panting, breathless, almost exhausted, he reached the summit, and before him yawned a chasm, dark, fathomless, as if nature in some wild convulsion had rent the rock asunder. The level ground on which he stood was barely four feet square; behind him sloped the most precipitous side of the crag, devoid of tree or bush, and slippery from the constant moisture that formed a deep black pool at its base. Stanley hazarded but one glance behind, then looked steadily forward, till his eye seemed accustomed to the width of the chasm, which did not exceed three feet. He fixed his hold firmly on a blasted trunk growing within the chasm; It shook-gave way-another moment and he would have been lost; but in that moment he loosed his hold, clasped both hands above his head, and successfully made the leap-aware only of the immense effort by the exhaustion which followed compelling him to sink down on the grass, deprived even of energy to look around him.
So marvellous was the change of scenery on which his eyes unclosed, that he started to his feet, bewildered. A gradual hill, partly covered with rich meadow grass, and partly with corn, diversified with foliage, sloped downwards, leading by an easy descent to a small valley, where orange and lime trees, the pine and chestnut, palm and cedar, grew in beautiful luxuriance. On the left was a small dwelling, almost hidden in trees. Directly beneath him a natural fountain threw its sparkling showers on beds of sweet-scented and gayly-colored flowers. The hand of man had very evidently aided nature in forming the wild yet chaste beauty of the scene; and Arthur bounded down the slope, disturbing a few tame sheep and goats on his way, determined on discovering the genius of the place.
No living object was visible, however; and with his usual reckless spirit, he resolved on exploring further, ere he demanded the hospitality of the dwelling. A narrow path led into a thicker wood, and in the very heart of its shade stood a small edifice, the nature of which Arthur vainly endeavored to understand. It was square, and formed of solid blocks of cedar; neither carving nor imagery of any kind adorned it; yet it had evidently been built with skill and care. There was neither tower nor bell, the usual accompaniments of a chapel, which Stanley had at first imagined it; and he stood gazing on it more and more bewildered. At that moment, a female voice of singular and thrilling beauty sounded from within. It was evidently a hymn she chanted, for the strain was slow and solemn, but though words were distinctly intelligible, their language was entirely unknown. The young man listened at first, conscious only of increasing wonderment, which was quickly succeeded by a thrill of hope, so strange, so engrossing, that he stood, outwardly indeed as if turned to stone; inwardly, with every pulse so throbbing that to move or speak was impossible. The voice ceased; and in another minute a door, so skilfully constructed as when closed to be invisible in the solid wall, opened noiselessly; and a female figure stood before him.

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Word Lists:

Crag : a steep or rugged cliff or rock face.

Chasm : a deep fissure in the earth, rock, or another surface

Precipitous : dangerously high or steep

Stagnation : the state of not flowing or moving

Wonderment : a state of awed admiration or respect

Physiognomy : a person's facial features or expression, especially when regarded as indicative of character or ethnic origin

Dissimilar : not alike; different

Bewildered : perplexed and confused; very puzzled

Knapsack : a bag with shoulder straps, carried on the back, and typically made of canvas or other weatherproof material.

Intersperse : scatter among or between other things; place here and there


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