Capture of a Harem
TANCRED and Fakredeen had been absent from Gindarics for two or three days, making an excursion in the neighbouring districts, and visiting several of those chieftains whose future aid might be of much importance to them. Away from the unconscious centre of many passions and intrigues, excited by the novelty of their life, sanguine of the ultimate triumph of his manoeuvres, and at times still influenced by his companion, the demeanour of the young Emir of Lebanon to his friend resumed something of its wonted softness, confidence, and complaisance. They were once more in sight of the wild palace-fort of Astarte; spurring their horses, they dashed before their attendants over the plain, and halted at the huge portal of iron, while the torches were lit, and preparations were made for the passage of the covered way.
When they entered the principal court, there were unusual appearances of some recent and considerable occurrence: groups of Turkish soldiers, disarmed, reclining camels, baggage and steeds, and many of the armed tribes of the mountain.
'What is all this?' inquired Fakredeen.
' 'Tis the harem of the Pasha of Aleppo,' replied a warrior, 'captured on the plain, and carried up into the mountains to our Queen of queens.'
'The war begins,' said Fakredeen, looking round at Tancred with a glittering eye.
'Women make war on women,' he replied.
' 'Tis the first step,' said the Emir, dismounting; 'I care not how it comes. Women are at the bottom of everything. If it had not been for the Sultana Mother, I should have now been Prince of the Mountain.'
When they had regained their apartments the lordly Keferinis soon appeared, to offer them his congratulations on their return. The minister was peculiarly refined and mysterious this morning, especially with respect to the great event, which he involved in so much of obscurity, that, after much conversation, the travellers were as little acquainted with the occurrence as when they entered the courtyard of Gindarics.
'The capture of a pasha's harem is not water spilt on sand, lordly Keferinis,' said the Emir. 'We shall hear more of this.'
'What we shall hear,' replied Keferinis, 'is entirely an affair of the future; nor is it in any way to be disputed that there are few men who do not find it more difficult to foretell what is to happen than to remember what has taken place.'
'We sometimes find that memory is as rare a quality as prediction,' said Tancred.
'In England,' replied the lordly Keferinis; 'but it is never to be forgotten, and indeed, on the contrary, should be entirely recollected, that the English, being a new people, have nothing indeed which they can remember.'
'And how is the most gracious lady, Queen of queens?' inquired Fakredeen.
'The most gracious lady, Queen of queens,' replied Keferinis, very mysteriously, 'has at this time many thoughts.'
'If she require any aid,' said Fakredeen, 'there is not a musket in Lebanon that is not at her service.'
Keferinis bent his head, and said, 'It is not in any way to be disputed that there are subjects which require for their management the application of a certain degree of force, and the noble Emir of the Lebanon has expressed himself in that sense with the most exact propriety; there are also subjects which are regulated by the application of a certain number of words, provided they were well chosen, and distinguished by an inestimable exactitude. It does not by any means follow that from what has occurred there will be sanguinary encounters between the people of the gracious lady, Queen of queens, and those that dwell in plains and cities; nor can it be denied that war is a means by which many things are brought to a final conjuncture. At the same time courtesy has many charms, even for the Turks, though it is not to be denied, or in any way concealed, that a Turk, especially if he be a pasha, is, of all obscene and utter children of the devil, the most entirely contemptible and thoroughly to be execrated.'
'If I were the Queen, I would not give up the harem,' said Fakredeen; 'and I would bring affairs to a crisis. The garrison at Aleppo is not strong; they have been obliged to march six regiments to Deir el Kamar, and, though affairs are comparatively tranquil in Lebanon for the moment, let me send a pigeon to my cousin Francis El Kazin, and young Syria will get up such a stir that old Wageah Pasha will not spare a single man. I will have fifty bonfires on the mountain near Beiroot in one night, and Colonel Rose will send off a steamer to Sir Canning to tell him there is a revolt in the Lebanon, with a double despatch for Aberdeen, full of smoking villages and slaughtered women!' and the young Emir inhaled his nargileh with additional zest as he recollected the triumphs of his past mystifications.
At sunset it was announced to the travellers that the Queen would receive them. Astarte appeared much gratified by their return, was very gracious, although in a different way, to both of them, inquired much as to what they had seen and what they had done, with whom they had conversed, and what had been said. At length she observed, 'Something has also happened at Gindarics in your absence, noble princes. Last night they brought part of a harem of the Pasha of Aleppo captive hither. This may lead to events.'
'I have already ventured to observe to the lordly Keferinis,' said Fakredeen, 'that every lance in the Lebanon is at your command, gracious Queen.'
'We have lances,' said Astarte; 'it is not of that I was thinking. Nor indeed do I care to prolong a quarrel for this capture. If the Pasha will renounce the tribute of the villages, I am for peace; if he will not, we will speak of those things of which there has been counsel between us. I do not wish this affair of the harem to be mixed up with what has preceded it. My principal captive is a most beautiful woman, and one, too, that greatly interests and charms me. She is not a Turk, but, I apprehend, a Christian lady of the cities. She is plunged in grief, and weeps sometimes with so much bitterness that I quite share her sorrow; but it is not so much because she is a captive, but because some one, who is most dear to her, has been slain in this fray. I have visited her, and tried to console her; and begged her to forget her grief and become my companion. But nothing soothes her, and tears flow for ever from eyes which are the most beautiful I ever beheld.'
'This is the land of beautiful eyes,' said Tancred, and Astarte almost unconsciously glanced at the speaker.
Cypros, who had quitted the attendant maidens immediately on the entrance of the two princes, after an interval, returned. There was some excitement on her countenance as she approached her mistress, and addressed Astarte in a hushed but hurried tone. It seemed that the fair captive of the Queen of the Ansarey had most unexpectedly expressed to Cypros her wish to repair to the divan of the Queen, although, the whole day, she had frequently refused to descend. Cypros feared that the presence of the two guests of her mistress might prove an obstacle to the fulfilment of this wish, as the freedom of social intercourse that prevailed among the Ansarey was unknown even among the ever-veiled women of the Maronites and Druses. But the fair captive had no prejudices on this head, and Cypros had accordingly descended to request the royal permission, or consult the royal will. Astarte spoke to Keferinis, who listened with an air of great profundity, and finally bowed assent, and Cypros retired.
Astarte had signified to Tancred her wish that he should approach her, while Keferinis at some distance was engaged in earnest conversation with Fakredeen, with whom he had not had previously the opportunity of being alone. His report of all that had transpired in his absence was highly favourable. The minister had taken the opportunity of the absence of the Emir and his friend to converse often and amply about them with the Queen. The idea of an united Syria was pleasing to the imagination of the young sovereign. The suggestion was eminently practicable. It required no extravagant combinations, no hazardous chances of fortune, nor fine expedients of political skill. A union between Fakredeen and Astarte at once connected the most important interests of the mountains without exciting the alarm or displeasure of other powers. The union was as legitimate as it would ultimately prove irresistible. It ensured a respectable revenue and a considerable force; and, with prudence and vigilance, the occasion would soon offer to achieve all the rest. On the next paroxysm in the dissolving empire of the Ottomans, the plain would be occupied by a warlike population descending from the mountains that commanded on one side the whole Syrian coast, and on the other all the inland cities from Aleppo to Damascus.
The eye of the young Emir glittered with triumph as he listened to the oily sentences of the eunuch. 'Lebanon,' he whispered, 'is the key of Syria, my Keferinis, never forget that; and we will lock up the land. Let us never sleep till this affair is achieved. You think she does not dream of a certain person, eh? I tell you, he must go, or we must get rid of him: I fear him not, but he is in the way; and the way should be smooth as the waters of El Arish. Remember the temple to the Syrian goddess at Deir el Kamar, my Keferinis! The religion is half the battle. How I shall delight to get rid of my bishops and those accursed monks: drones, drivellers, bigots, drinking my golden wine of Canobia, and smoking my delicate Latakia. You know not Canobia, Keferinis; but you have heard of it. You have been at Bted-deen? Well, Bteddeen to Canobia is an Arab moon to a Syrian sun. The marble alone at Canobia cost a million of piastres. The stables are worthy of the steeds of Solomon. You may kill anything you like in the forest, from panthers to antelopes. Listen, my Keferinis, let this be done, and done quickly, and Canobia is yours.'
'Do you ever dream?' said Astrate to Tancred. 'They say that life is a dream.' 'I sometimes wish it were. Its pangs are too acute for a shadow.'
'But you have no pangs.'
'I had a dream when you were away, in which I was much alarmed,' said Astarte. 'Indeed!'
'I thought that Gindarics was taken by the Jews. I suppose you have talked of them to me so much that my slumbering memory wandered.'
'It is a resistless and exhaustless theme,' said Tancred; 'for the greatness and happiness of everything, Gindarics included, are comprised in the principles of which they were the first propagators.'
'Nevertheless, I should be sorry if my dream came to be true,' said Astarte.
'May your dreams be as bright and happy as your lot, royal lady!' said Tancred.
'My lot is not bright and happy,' said the Queen; 'once I thought it was, but I think so no longer.'
'I wish you could have a dream and find out,' said the Queen. 'Disquietude is sometimes as perplexing as pleasure. Both come and go like birds.'
'Like the pigeon you sent to Damascus,' said Tancred.
'Ah! why did I send it?'
'Because you were most gracious, lady.'
'Because I was very rash, noble prince.'
'When the great deeds are done to which this visit will lead, you will not think so.'
'I am not born for great deeds; I am a woman, and I am content with beautiful ones.'
'You still dream of the Syrian goddess,' said Tan-cred.
'No; not of the Syrian goddess. Tell me: they say the Hebrew women are very lovely, is it so?'
'They have that reputation.'
'But do you think so?'
'I have known some distinguished for their beauty.'
'Do they resemble the statue in our temple?'
'Their style is different,' said Tancred; 'the Greek and the Hebrew are both among the highest types of the human form.'
'But you prefer the Hebrew?'
'I am not so discriminating a critic,' said Tancred; 'I admire the beautiful.'
'Well, here comes my captive,' said the Queen; 'if you like, you shall free her, for she wonderfully takes me. She is a Georgian, I suppose, and bears the palm from all of us. I will not presume to contend with her: she would vanquish, perhaps, even that fair Jewess of whom, I hear, you are so enamoured.'
Tancred started, and would have replied, but Cypros advanced at this moment with her charge, who withdrew her veil as she seated herself, as commanded, before the Queen. She withdrew her veil, and Fakredeen and Tancred beheld Eva!