Tancred/Chapter XLI


The Mountains of Lebanon

HOW do you like my forest?' asked Fakredeen of Tancred, as, while descending a range of the Lebanon, an extensive valley opened before them, covered with oak trees, which clothed also, with their stout trunks, their wide-spreading branches, and their rich starry foliage, the opposite and undulating hills, one of which was crowned with a convent. 'It is the only oak forest in Syria. It will serve some day to build our fleet.'

At Gaza, which they had reached by easy journeys, for Fakredeen was very considerate of the health of Tancred, whose wound had scarcely healed, and over whom he watched with a delicate solicitude which would have almost become a woman, the companions met Scheriff Effendi. The magic signature of Lord Montacute settled the long-vexed question of the five thousand muskets, and secured also ten thousand piastres for the commander of the escort to deliver to his chief. The children of Rechab, in convoy of the precious charge, certain cases of which were to be delivered to the great Sheikh, and the rest to be deposited in indicated quarters of the Lebanon, here took leave of the Emir and his friend, and pursued their course to the north of Hebron and the Dead Sea, in the direction of the Hauraan, where they counted, if not on overtaking the great Sheikh, at least on the additional security which his neighbourhood would ensure them. Their late companions remained at Gaza, awaiting Tancred's yacht, which Baroni fetched from the neighbouring Jaffa. A favourable breeze soon carried them from Gaza to Beiroot, where they landed, and where Fakredeen had the political pleasure of exhibiting his new and powerful ally, a prince, an English prince, the brother perhaps of a queen, unquestionably the owner of a splendid yacht, to the admiring eye of all his, at the same time, credulous and rapacious creditors.

The air of the mountains invigorated Tancred. His eyes had rested so long on the ocean and the desert, that the effect produced on the nerves by the forms and colours of a more varied nature were alone reviving.

There are regions more lofty than the glaciered crests of Lebanon; mountain scenery more sublime, perhaps even more beautiful: its peaks are not lost in the clouds like the mysterious Ararat; its forests are not as vast and strange as the towering Himalaya; it has not the volcanic splendour of the glowing Andes; in lake and in cataract it must yield to the European Alps; but for life, vigorous, varied, and picturesque, there is no highland territory in the globe that can for a moment compare with the great chain of Syria.

Man has fled from the rich and servile plains, from the tyranny of the Turk and from Arabian rapine, to clothe the crag with vines, and rest under his fig tree on the mountain top. An ingenious spirit, unwearied industry, and a bland atmosphere have made a perpetual garden of the Syrian mountains. Their acclivities sparkle with terraces of corn and fruit. Castle and convent crown their nobler heights, and flat-roofed villages nestle amid groves of mulberry trees. Among these mountains we find several human races, several forms of government, and several schemes of religion, yet everywhere liberty: a proud, feudal aristocracy; a conventual establishment, which in its ramifications recalls the middle ages; a free and armed peasantry, whatever their creed, Emirs on Arabian steeds, bishops worthy of the Apostles, the Maronite monk, the horned head-gear of the Druses.

Some of those beautiful horses, for which Fakredeen was celebrated, had awaited the travellers at Beiroot. The journey through the mountain was to last three days before they reached Canobia. They halted one night at a mountain village, where the young Emir was received with enthusiastic devotion, and on the next at a small castle belonging to Fakredeen, and where resided one of his kinsmen. Two hours before sunset, on the third day, they were entering the oak forest to which we referred, and through whose glades they journeyed for about half an hour. On arriving at the convent-crowned height opposite, they beheld an expanse of country; a small plain amid the mountains; in many parts richly cultivated, studded by several hamlets, and watered by a stream, winding amid rich shrubberies of oleander.

Almost in the middle of this plain, on a height superior to the immediate elevations which bounded it, rose a mountain of gradual ascent, covered with sycamores, and crowned by a superb Saracenic castle.

'Canobia!' said Fakredeen to Tancred, 'which I hope you never will quit.'

'It would be difficult,' rejoined Tancred, animated. 'I have seldom seen a sight more striking and more beautiful.'

In the meantime, Freeman and Trueman, who were far in the rear amid Fakredeen's attendants, exchanged congratulating glances of blended surprise and approbation.

'This is the first gentleman's seat I have seen since we left England,' said Freeman.

'There must have been a fine coming of age here,' rejoined Trueman.

'As for that,' replied Freeman, 'comings of age depend in a manner upon meat and drink. They ain't in noways to be carried out with coffee and pipes. Without oxen roasted whole, and broached hogsheads, they ain't in a manner legal.'

A horseman, who was ahead of the Emir and Tancred, now began beating with a stick on two small tabors, one on each side of his saddle, and thus announced to those who were already on the watch, the approach of their lord. It was some time, however, before the road, winding through the sycamore trees and gradually ascending, brought them to the outworks of the castle, of which, during their progress, they enjoyed a variety of views. It was a very extensive pile, in excellent condition, and apparently strongly fortified. A number of men, in showy dresses and with ornamented arms, were clustered round the embattled gateway, which introduced the travellers into a quadrangle of considerable size, and of which the light and airy style pleasingly and suitably contrasted with the sterner and more massive character of the exterior walls. A fountain rose in the centre of the quadrangle which was surrounded by arcades. Ranged round this fountain, in a circle, were twenty saddled steeds of the highest race, each held by a groom, and each attended by a man-at-arms. All pressed their hands to their hearts as the Emir entered, but with a gravity of countenance which was never for a moment disturbed. Whether their presence were habitual, or only for the occasion, it was unquestionably impressive. Here the travellers dismounted, and Fakredeen ushered Tancred through a variety of saloons, of which the furniture, though simple, as becomes the East, was luxurious, and, of its kind, superb; floors of mosaic marbles, bright carpets, arabesque ceilings, walls of carved cedar, and broad divans of the richest stuffs of Damascus.

'And this divan is for you,' said Fakredeen, showing Tancred into a chamber, which opened upon a flower-garden shaded by lemon trees. 'I am proud of my mirror,' he added, with some exultation, as he called Tancred's attention to a large French looking-glass, the only one in Lebanon. 'And this,' added Fakredeen, leading Tancred through a suite of marble chambers, 'this is your bath.'

In the centre of one chamber, fed by a perpetual fountain, was a large alabaster basin, the edges of which were strewn with flowers just culled. The chamber was entirely of porcelain; a golden flower on a ground of delicate green.

'I will send your people to you,' said Fakredeen; 'but, in the meantime, there are attendants here who are, perhaps, more used to the duty;' and, so saying, he clapped his hands, and several servants appeared, bearing baskets of curious linen, whiter than the snow of Lebanon, and a variety of robes.