The Mysterious Mountains
AT THE black gorge of a mountain pass sat, like sentries, two horsemen. Their dress was that of the Kurds: white turbans, a black shirt girt with cords, on their backs a long lance, by their sides a crooked sword, and in their girdles a brace of pistols.
Before them extended a wide, but mountainous landscape: after the small and very rugged plain on the brink of which they were posted, many hilly ridges, finally a lofty range. The general character of the scene was severe and savage; the contiguous rocks were black and riven, the hills barren and stony, the granite peaks of the more eminent heights uncovered, except occasionally by the snow. Yet, notwithstanding the general aridity of its appearance, the country itself was not unfruitful. The concealed vegetation of the valleys was not inconsiderable, and was highly cherished; the less precipitous cliffs, too, were cut into terraces, and covered with artificial soil. The numerous villages intimated that the country was well populated. The inhabitants produced sufficient wine and corn for their own use, were clothed in garments woven by themselves, and possessed some command over the products of other countries by the gums, the bees'-wax, and the goats' wool which they could offer in exchange.
'I have seen two eagles over Gibel Kiflis twice this morning,' said one of the horsemen to his companion. 'What does that portend?'
'A good backsheesh for our Queen, comrade. If these children of Franguestan can pay a princess's dower to visit some columns in the desert, like Tadmor, they may well give us the golden keys of their treasury when they enter where none should go but those who are——'
'But they say that this Frank is one.'
'It has never been known that there were any among the Franks,' replied his comrade, shaking his head. 'The Franks are all Nazareny, and, before they were Nazareny, they were savages, and lived in caves.'
'But Keferinis has given the word that all are to guard over the strangers as over the Queen herself, and that one is a prince, who is unquestionably one of us.'
'My father had counted a hundred and ten years when he left us, Azaz, and he had twenty-four children, and when he was at the point of death he told us two things: one was, never to forget what we were; and the other, that never in his time had one like us ever visited our country.'
'Eagles again fly over Gibel Kiflis: methinks the strangers must be at hand.'
'May their visit lead to no evil to them or to us!'
'Have you misgivings?'
'We are alone among men: let us remain so.'
'You are right. I was once at Haleb (Aleppo); I will never willingly find myself there again.'
'Give me the mountains, the mountains of our fathers, and the beautiful things that can be seen only by one of us!'
'They are not to be found in the bazaars of Haleb; in the gardens of Damascus they are not to be sought.'
'Oh! who is like the Queen who reigns over us? I know to whom she is to be compared, but I will not say; yet you too know, my brother in arms.'
'Yes; there are things which are not known in the bazaars of Haleb; in the gardens of Damascus they are not to be sought.'
Karaguus, the black-eyed pigeon, brought tidings to the Queen of the Ansarey, from her agent Darkush, that two young princes, one a Syrian, the other a Frank, wished to enter her territories to confer with her on grave matters, and that he had reason to believe that one of the princes, the Frank, strange, incredible as it might sound, was one of themselves. On the evening of the next day, very weary, came Ruby-lips, the brother of Black-eyes, with the reply of her Majesty, ordering Darkush to grant the solicited pass, but limiting the permission of entrance into her dominions to the two princes and two attendants. As one of these, Baroni figured. They did not travel very rapidly. Tancred was glad to seize the occasion to visit Hameh and Aleppo on his journey.
It was after quitting the latter city, and crossing the river Koweik, that they approached the region which was the object of their expedition. What certainly did not contribute to render their progress less difficult and dangerous was the circumstance that war at this moment was waged between the Queen of the Ansarey and the Pasha of Aleppo. The Turkish potentate had levied tribute on some villages which owned her sway, and which, as he maintained, were not included in the ancient composition paid by the Ansarey to the Porte in full of all demands. The consequence was, that parties of the Ansarey occasionally issued from their passes and scoured the plain of Aleppo. There was also an understanding between the Ansarey and the Kurds, that, whenever any quarrel occurred between the mountaineers and the Turks, the Kurds, who resembled the inhabitants of the mountain in their general appearance, should, under the title of Ansarey, take this opportunity of ravage. Darkush, however, had given Baroni credentials to the secret agent of the Ansarey at Aleppo; and, with his instructions and assistance, the difficulties, which otherwise might have been insuperable, were overcome; and thus it was that the sentries stationed at the mouth of the black ravine, which led to the fortress palace of the Queen, were now hourly expecting the appearance of the princes.
A horseman at full gallop issued from the hills, and came bounding over the stony plain; he shouted to the sentries as he passed them, announcing the arrival of the strangers, and continued his pace through the defile. Soon afterwards appeared the cavalcade of the princes; themselves, their two attendants, and a party of horsemen with white turbans and long lances.
Tancred and Fakredeen rode horses of a high race. But great as is the pleasure of being well mounted, it was not that circumstance alone which lit up their eyes with even unwonted fire, and tinged their cheeks with a triumphant glow. Their expedition had been delightful; full of adventure, novelty, and suspense. They had encountered difficulties and they had overcome them. They had a great purpose, they were on the eve of a stirring incident. They were young, daring, and brilliant.
'A strong position,' said Tancred, as they entered the defile.
'O! my Tancred, what things we have seen together!' exclaimed Fakredeen. 'And what is to follow?'
The defile was not long, and it was almost unbending. It terminated in a table-land of very limited extent, bounded by a rocky chain, on one of the front and more moderate elevations of which was the appearance of an extensive fortification; though, as the travellers approached it, they perceived that, in many instances, art had only availed itself of the natural advantages of the position, and that the towers and turrets were carved out of the living rock which formed the impregnable bulwarks and escarpments.
The cavalcade, at a quick pace, soon gained the ascending and winding road that conducted them to a tall and massy gateway, the top of which was formed of one prodigious stone. The iron portal opening displayed a covered way cut out of the rock, and broad enough to permit the entrance of two horsemen abreast. This way was of considerable length, and so dark that they were obliged to be preceded by torch-bearers. Thence they issued into a large courtyard, the sunshine of which was startling and almost painful, after their late passage. The court was surrounded by buildings of different styles and proportions; the further end, and, as it were, centre of the whole, being a broad, square, and stunted brick tower, immediately behind which rose the granite peaks of the mountains.
There were some horsemen in the court, and many attendants on foot, who came forward and assisted the guests to alight. Tancred and Fakredeen did not speak, but exchanged glances which expressed their secret thoughts. Perhaps they were of the same opinion as Baroni, that, difficult as it was to arrive there, it might not be more easy to return. However, God is great! a consolatory truth that had sustained Baroni under many trials.
They were ushered into a pavilion at the side of the court, and thence into a commodious divan, which opened upon another and smaller court, in which were some acacia trees. As usual, pipes and coffee were brought. Baroni was outside, with the other attendant, stowing away the luggage. A man plainly but neatly dressed, slender and wrinkled, with a stooping gait but a glittering eye, came into the chamber, and, in a hushed voice, with many smiles, much humility, but the lurking air of a master, welcomed them to Gindarics. Then, seating himself on the divan, he clapped his hands, and an attendant brought him his nargileh.
'I presume,' said Tancred, 'that the Emir and myself have the honour of conversing with the Lord Keferinis.' Thus he addressed this celebrated eunuch, who is prime minister of the Queen of the Ansarey.
'The Prince of England,' replied Keferinis, bowing, and speaking in a very affected voice, and in a very affected manner, 'must not expect the luxuries of the world amid these mountains. Born in London, which is surrounded by the sea, and with an immense slave population at your command, you have advantages with which the Ansarey cannot compete, unjustly deprived, as they have been, of their port; and unable, in the present diminished supply of the markets, to purchase slaves as heretofore from the Turkmans and the Kurds.'
'I suppose the Russians interfere with your markets?' said Fakredeen.
'The noble Emir of the Lebanon has expressed himself with infinite exactitude,' said Keferinis. 'The Russians now entirely stock their harems from the north of Asia.'
'The Lord Keferinis has been a great traveller, I apprehend?' said Tancred.
'The Prince of England has expressed himself with extreme exactitude, and with flattering grace,' replied Keferinis. 'I have indeed visited all the Syrian cities, except Jerusalem, which no one wishes to see, and which,' he added, in a sweet calm tone, 'is unquestionably a place fit only for hogs.'
Tancred started, but repressed himself.
'Have you been in Lebanon?' asked Fakredeen.
'Noble Emir, I have been the guest of princes of your illustrious house. Conversations have passed between me and the Emir Bescheer,' he added, with a significant look. 'Perhaps, had events happened which did not occur, the great Emir Bescheer might not at this moment have been a prisoner at Stamboul, among those who, with infinite exactitude, may be described as the most obscene sons of very intolerable barbarians.'
'And why did not you and the Emir Bescheer agree?' inquired Fakredeen, eagerly. 'Why has there never been a right understanding between your people and the House of Shehaab? United, we should not only command Syria, but we might do more: we might control Asia itself!'
'The noble Emir has expressed himself with inexpressible grace. The power of the Ansarey cannot be too highly estimated!'
'Is it true that your sovereign can bring five and twenty thousand men into the field?' asked Tancred.
'Five and twenty thousand men,' replied Keferinis, with insinuating courtesy, 'each of whom could beat nine Maronites, and consequently three Druses.'
'Five and twenty thousand figs for your five and twenty thousand men!' exclaimed Fakredeen laughing.
At this moment entered four pages and four maidens bringing sweetmeats from the Queen, and goblets of iced water. They bowed; Keferinis indicated their purpose, and when they had fulfilled their office they disappeared; but the seasonable interruption had turned the conversation, and prevented Fakredeen making a sharp retort. Now they talked of the Queen, who, Keferinis said, would be graciously pleased not to see them to-day, and might not even see them for a week, which agreeable intelligence was communicated in the most affable manner, as if it were good news, or a compliment at least.
'The name of the Queen's father was Suedia,' said Fakredeen.
'The name of the Queen's father was Suedia,' replied Keferinis.
'And the name of the Queen's mother——'
'Is of no consequence,' observed Keferinis, 'for she was a slave, and not one of us, and therefore may with singular exactitude be described as nothing.'
'Is she the first Queen who has reigned over the Ansarey?' inquired Tancred.
'The first since we have settled in these mountains,' replied Keferinis.
'And where were you settled before?' inquired Fakredeen.
'Truly,' replied Keferinis, 'in cities which never can be forgotten, and therefore need never be mentioned.'
Tancred and Fakredeen were very desirous of learning the name of the Queen, but were too well-bred directly to make the inquiry of Keferinis. They had endeavoured to obtain the information as they travelled along, but although every Ansarey most obligingly answered their inquiry, they invariably found, on comparing notes, that every time they were favoured with a different piece of information. At last, Baroni informed them that it was useless to pursue their researches, as he was, from various reasons, convinced that no Ansarey was permitted to give any information of his country, race, government, or creed, although he was far too civil ever to refuse an apparently satisfactory answer to every question. As for Keferinis, although he was very conversable, the companions observed that he always made it a rule to dilate upon subjects and countries with which he had no acquaintance, and he expressed himself in so affected a manner, and with such an amplification of useless phraseology, that, though he was always talking, they seemed at the end of the day to be little more acquainted with the Ansarey and their sovereign than when Baroni first opened the subject of their visit to Darkush at Damascus.