Tancred/Chapter LIX

Tancred  (1847)  by Benjamin Disraeli
Chapter LIX. Tancred Returns to Jerusalem


Tancred Returns to Jerusalem

TANCRED had profited by his surprise by the children of Rechab in the passes of the Stony Arabia, and had employed the same tactics against the Turkish force. By a simulated defence on the borders, and by the careful dissemination of false intelligence, he had allowed the Pasha and his troops to penetrate the mountains, and principally by a pass which the Turks were assured by their spies that the Ansarey had altogether neglected. The success of these manoeuvres had been as complete as the discomfiture and rout of the Turks. Tancred, at the head of the cavalry, had pursued them into the plain, though he had halted, for an instant, before he quitted the mountains, to send a courier to Astarte from himself with the assurance of victory, and the horsetails of the Pasha for a trophy.

It so happened, however, that, while Tancred, with very few attendants, was scouring the plain, and driving before him a panic-struck multitude, who, if they could only have paused and rallied, might in a moment have overwhelmed him, a strong body of Turkish cavalry, who had entered the mountains by a different pass from that in which the principal engagement had taken place, but who, learning the surprise and defeat of the main body, had thought it wise to retreat in order and watch events, debouched at this moment from the high country into the plain and in the rear of Tancred. Had they been immediately recognised by the fugitives, it would have been impossible for Tancred to escape; but the only impression of the routed Turks was, that a reinforcement had joined their foe, and their disorder was even increased by the appearance in the distance of their own friends. This misapprehension must, however, in time, have been at least partially removed; but Baroni, whose quick glance had instantly detected the perilous incident, warned Tancred immediately.

'We are surrounded, my lord; there is only one course to pursue. To regain the mountains is impossible; if we advance, we enter only a hostile country, and must be soon overpowered. We must make for the Eastern desert.'

Tancred halted and surveyed the scene: he had with him not twenty men. The Turkish cavalry, several hundreds strong, had discovered their quarry, and were evidently resolved to cut off their retreat.

'Very well,' said Tancred, 'we are well mounted, we must try the mettle of our steeds. Farewell, Gindaricâ! Farewell, gods of Olympus! To the desert, which I ought never to have quitted!' and, so speaking, he and his band dashed towards the East.

Their start was, so considerable that they baffled their pursuers, who, however, did not easily relinquish their intended prey. Some shots in the distance, towards nightfall, announced that the enemy had given up the chase. After three hours of the moon, Tancred and his companions rested at a well not far from a village, where they obtained some supplies. An hour before dawn, they again pursued their way over a rich flat country, uninclosed, yet partially cultivated, with, every now and then, a village nestling in a jungle of Indian fig.

It was the commencement of December, and the country was very parched; but the short though violent season of rain was at hand: this renovates in the course of a week the whole face of Nature, and pours into little more than that brief space the supplies which in other regions are distributed throughout the year. On the third day, before sunset, the country having gradually become desolate and deserted, consisting of vast plains covered with herds, with occasionally some wandering Turkmans or Kurds, Tancred and his companions came within sight of a broad and palmy river, a branch of the Euphrates.

The country round, far as the eye could range, was a kind of downs covered with a scanty herbage, now brown with heat and age. When Tancred had gained an undulating height, and was capable of taking a more extensive survey of the land, it presented, especially towards the south, the same features through an illimitable space.

'The Syrian desert!' said Baroni; 'a fortnight later, and we shall see this land covered with flowers and fragrant with aromatic herbs.'

'My heart responds to it,' said Tancred. 'What is Damascus, with all its sumptuousness, to this sweet liberty?'

Quitting the banks of the river, they directed their course to the south, and struck as it were into the heart of the desert; yet, on the morrow, the winding waters again met them. And now there opened on their sight a wondrous scene: as far as the eye could reach innumerable tents; strings of many hundred camels going to, or returning from, the waters; groups of horses picketed about; processions of women with vases on their heads visiting the palmy banks; swarms of children and dogs; spreading flocks; and occasionally an armed horseman bounding about the environs of the vast encampment.

Although scarcely a man was visible when Tancred first caught a glimpse of this Arabian settlement, a band of horsemen suddenly sprang from behind a rising ground and came galloping up to them to reconnoitre and to inquire.

'We are brothers,' said Baroni, 'for who should be the master of so many camels but the lord of the Syrian pastures?'

'There is but one God,' said the Bedouin, 'and none are lords of the Syrian pastures but the children of Rechab.'

'Truly, there is only one God,' said Baroni; 'go tell the great Sheikh that his friend the English prince has come here to give him a salaam of peace.'

Away bounded back the Bedouins, and were soon lost in the crowded distance.

'All is right,' said Baroni; 'we shall sup to-night under the pavilion of Amalek.'

'I visit him then, at length, in his beautiful pastures,' said Tancred; 'but, alas! I visit him alone.'

They had pulled up their horses, and were proceeding leisurely towards the encampment, when they observed a cavalcade emerging from the outer boundary of the settlement. This was Amalek himself, on one of his steeds of race, accompanied by several of his leading Sheikhs, coming to welcome Tancred to his pavilion in the Syrian pastures. A joyful satisfaction sparkled in the bright eyes of the old chieftain, as, at a little distance, he waved his hand with graceful dignity, and then pressed it to his heart.

'A thousand salaams,' he exclaimed, when he had reached Tancred; 'there is but one God. I press you to my heart of hearts. There are also other friends, but they are not here.'

'Salaam, great Sheikh! I feel indeed we are brothers. There are friends of whom we must speak, and indeed of many things.'

Thus conversing and riding side by side, Amalek and Tancred entered the camp. Nearly five thousand persons were collected together in this wilderness, and two thousand warriors were prepared at a moment's notice to raise their lances in the air. There were nearly as many horses, and ten times as many camels. This wilderness was the principal and favourite resting-place of the great Sheikh of the children of Rechab, and the abundant waters and comparatively rich pasturage permitted him to gather around him a great portion of his tribe.

The lamps soon gleamed, and the fires soon blazed; sheep were killed, bread baked, coffee pounded, and the pipe of honour was placed in the hands of Tancred. For an Arabian revel, the banquet was long and rather elaborate. By degrees, however, the guests stole away; the women ceased to peep through the curtains; and the children left off asking Baroni to give them backsheesh. At length, Amalek and Tancred being left alone, the great Sheikh, who had hitherto evinced no curiosity as to the cause of the presence of his guest, said, 'There is a time for all things, for eating and for drinking, also for prayers. There is, also, a season to ask questions. Why is the brother of the Queen of the English in the Syrian desert?'

'There is much to tell, and much to inquire,' said Tancred; 'but before I speak of myself, let me know whether you can get me tidings of Eva, the daughter of Besso.'

'Is she not living in rooms with many divans?' said Amalek.

'Alas!' said Tancred, 'she was a prisoner, and is now a fugitive.'

'What children of Gin have done this deed? Are there strange camels drinking at my wells? Is it some accursed Kurd that has stolen her sheep; or some Turkman, blacker than night, that has hankered after her bracelets?'

'Nothing of all this, yet more than all this. All shall be told to you, great Sheikh, yet before I speak, tell me again, can you get me tidings of Eva, the daughter of Besso?'

'Can I fire an arrow that will hit its mark?' said Amalek; 'tell me the city of Syria where Eva the daughter of Besso may be found, and I will send her a messenger that would reach her even in the bath, were she there.'

Tancred then gave the great Sheikh a rapid sketch of what had occurred to Eva, and expressed his fear that she might have been intercepted by the Turkish troops. Amalek decided that she must be at Aleppo, and, instantly summoning one of his principal men, he gave instructions for the departure of a trusty scout in that direction.

'Ere the tenth day shall have elapsed,' said the great Sheikh, 'we shall have sure tidings. And now let me know, prince of England, by what strange cause you could have found yourself in the regions of those children of hell, the Ansarey, who, it is well known, worship Eblis in every obscene form.'

'It is a long tale,' said Tancred, 'but I suppose it must be told; but now that you have relieved my mind by sending to Aleppo, I can hardly forget that I have ridden for more than three days, and with little pause. I am not, alas! a true Arab, though I love Arabia and Arabian thoughts; and, indeed, my dear friend, had we not met again, it is impossible to say what might have been my lot, for I now feel that I could not have much longer undergone the sleepless toil I have of late encountered. If Eva be safe, I am content, or would wish to feel so; but what is content, and what is life, and what is man? Indeed, great Sheikh, the longer I live and the more I think——' and here the chibouque dropped gently from Tancred's mouth, and he himself sunk upon the carpet.