Tancred/Chapter XLIX


A Discussion About Scammony

AFTER taking the bath on his arrival at Damascus, having his beard arranged by a barber of distinction, and dressing himself in a fresh white suit, as was his custom when in residence, with his turban of the same colour arranged a little aside, for Baroni was scrupulous as to his appearance, he hired a donkey and made his way to the great bazaar. The part of the city through which he proceeded was very crowded and bustling: narrow streets, with mats slung across, to shield from the sun the swarming population beneath. His accustomed step was familiar with every winding of the emporium of the city; he threaded without hesitation the complicated mazes of those interminable arcades. Now he was in the street of the armourers, now among the sellers of shawls; the prints of Manchester were here unfolded, there the silks of India; sometimes he sauntered by a range of shops gay with yellow papooshes and scarlet slippers, and then hurried by the stalls and shelves stored with the fatal frippery of the East, in which it is said the plague in some shape or other always lurks and lingers. This locality, however, indicated that Baroni was already approaching the purlieus of the chief places; the great population had already much diminished, the brilliancy of the scene much dimmed; there was no longer the swarm of itinerant traders who live by promptly satisfying the wants of the visitors to the bazaar in the shape of a pipe or an ice, a cup of sherbet or of coffee, or a basket of delicious fruit. The passengers were few, and all seemed busy: some Armenians, a Hebrew physician and his page, the gliding phantoms of some winding-sheets, which were in fact women.

Baroni turned into an arcade, well built, spacious, airy, and very neatly fitted up. This was the bazaar of the dealers in drugs. Here, too, spices are sold, all sorts of dye-woods, and especially the choice gums for which Arabia is still celebrated, and which Syria would fain rival by the aromatic juices of her pistachio and her apricot trees.

Seated on what may be called his counter, smoking a nargileh, in a mulberry-coloured robe bordered with fur, and a dark turban, was a middle-aged man of sinister countenance and air, a long hook nose and a light blue eye.

'Welcome, Effendi,' he said, when he observed Baroni; 'many welcomes! And how long have you been at Esh Sham?'

'Not too long,' said Baroni; 'and have you been here since my last visit?'

'Here and there,' said the man, offering him his pipe.

'And how are our friends in the mountains?' said Baroni, touching the tube with his lips and returning it.

'They live,' said the man.

'That's something,' said Baroni.

'Have you been in the land of the Franks?' said the man.

'I am always in the land of the Franks,' said Baroni, 'and about.'

'You don't know any one who wants a parcel of scammony?' said the man.

'I don't know that I don't,' said Baroni, mysteriously.

'I have a very fine parcel,' said the man; 'it is very scarce.'

'No starch or myrrh in it?' asked Baroni.

'Do you think I am a Jew?' said the man.

'I never could make out what you were, friend Darkush; but as for scammony, I could throw a good deal of business in your way at this moment, to say nothing of galls and tragacanth.'

'As for tragacanth,' said Darkush, 'it is known that no one in Esh Sham has pure tragacanth except me; as for galls, every foundling in Syria thinks he can deal in afis, but is it afis of Moussoul, Effendi?'

'What you say are the words of truth, good Darkush; I could recommend you with a safe conscience. I dreamt last night that there would many piastres pass between us this visit.'

'What is the use of friends unless they help you in the hour of adversity?' exclaimed Darkush.

'You speak ever the words of truth. I am myself in a valley of dark shadows. I am travelling with a young English capitani, a prince of many tails, and he has declared that he will entirely extinguish my existence unless he pays a visit to the Queen of the Ansarey.'

'Let him first pay a visit to King Soliman in the cities of the Gin,' said Darkush, doggedly.

'I am not sure that he will not, some time or other,' replied Baroni, 'for he is a man who will not take nay. But now let us talk of scammony,' he added, vaulting on the counter, and seating himself by the side of Darkush; 'one might get more by arranging this visit to your mountains than by enjoying an appalto of all its gums, friend Darkush; but if it cannot be, it cannot be.'

'It cannot be.'

'Let us talk, then, of scammony. You remember my old master, Darkush?'

'There are many things that are forgotten, but he is not one.'

'This capitani with whom I travel, this prince of many tails, is his friend. If you serve me now, you serve also him who served you.'

'There are things that can be done, and there are things that cannot be done.'

'Let us talk, then, of scammony. But fifteen years ago, when we first met, friend Darkush, you did not say nay to M. de Sidonia. It was the plague alone that stopped us.'

'The snow on the mountain is not the same snow as fifteen years ago, Effendi. All things change!'

'Let us talk, then, of scammony. The Ansarey have friends in other lands, but if they will not listen to them, many kind words will be lost. Things also might happen which would make everybody's shadow longer, but if there be no sun, their shadows cannot be seen.'

Darkush shrugged his shoulders.

'If the sun of friendship does not illumine me,' resumed Baroni, 'I am entirely lost in the bottomless vale. Truly, I would give a thousand piastres if I could save my head by taking the capitani to your mountains.'

'The princes of Franguestan cannot take off heads,' observed Darkush. 'All they can do is to banish you to islands inhabited by demons.'

'But the capitani of whom I speak is prince of many tails, is the brother of queens. Even the great Queen of the English, they say, is his sister.'

'He who serves queens may expect backsheesh.'

'And you serve a queen, Darkush?'

'Which is the reason I cannot give you a pass for the mountains, as I would have done, fifteen years ago, in the time of her father.'

'Are her commands, then, so strict?'

'That she should see neither Moslem nor Christian. She is at war with both, and will be for ever, for the quarrel between them is beyond the power of man to remove.'

'And what may it be?'

'That you can learn only in the mountains of the Ansarey,' said Darkush, with a malignant smile.

Baroni fell into a musing mood. After a few moments' thought, he looked up, and said: 'What you have told me, friend Darkush, is very interesting, and throws light on many things. This young prince, whom I serve, is a friend to your race, and knows well why you are at war both with Moslem and Christian, for he is so himself. But he is a man sparing of words, dark in thought, and terrible to deal with. Why he wishes to visit your people I dared not inquire, but now I guess, from what you have let fall, that he is an Ansarey himself. He has come from a far land merely to visit his race, a man who is a prince among the people, to whom piastres are as water. I doubt not he has much to say to your Queen: things might have happened that would have lengthened all our shadows; but never mind, what cannot be, cannot be: let us talk, then, of scammony.'

'You think he is one?' said Darkush, in a lower tone, and looking very inquiringly.

'I do,' said Baroni.

'And what do you mean by one?' said Darkush.

'That is exactly the secret which I never could penetrate.'

'I cannot give a pass to the mountains,' said Darkush, 'but the sympathy of friends is a river flowing in a fair garden. If this prince, whose words and thoughts are dark, should indeed be one—— Could I see him, Effendi?'

'It is a subject on which I dare not speak to him,' said Baroni. 'I hinted at his coming here: his brow was the brow of Eblis, his eye flashed like the red lightning of the Kamsin: it is impossible! What cannot be done, cannot be done. He must return to the land of his fathers, unseen by your Queen, of whom he is perhaps a brother; he will live, hating alike Moslem and Christian, but he will banish me for ever to islands of many demons.'

'The Queen shall know of these strange things,' said Darkush, 'and we will wait for her words.'

'Wait for the Mecca caravan!' exclaimed Baroni. 'You know not the child of storms, who is my master, and that is ever a reason why I think he must be one of you. For had he been softened by Christianity or civilised by the Koran——'

'Unripe figs for your Christianity and your Koran!' exclaimed Darkush. 'Do you know what we think of your Christianity and your Koran?'

'No,' said Baroni, quietly. 'Tell me.'

'You will learn in our mountains,' said Darkush.

'Then you mean to let me go there?'

'If the Queen permit you,' said Darkush.

'It is three hundred miles to your country, if it be an hour's journey,' said Baroni. 'What with sending the message and receiving the answer, to say nothing of the delays which must occur with a woman and a queen in the case, the fountains of Esh Sham will have run dry before we hear that our advance is forbidden.'

Darkush shook his head, and yet smiled.

'By the sunset of to-morrow, Effendi, I could say, ay or nay. Tell me what scammony you want, and it shall be done.'

'Write down in your tablets how much you can let me have,' said Baroni, 'and I will pay you for it to-morrow. As for the goods themselves, you may keep them for me, until I ask you for them; perhaps the next time I travel with a capitani who is one of yourselves.'

Darkush threw aside the tube of his nargileh, and, putting his hand very gently into the breast of his robe, he drew out a pigeon, dove-coloured, but with large bright black eyes. The pigeon seemed very knowing and very proud, as he rested on his master's two fingers.

'Hah, hah! my Karaguus, my black-eyes,' exclaimed Darkush. 'What, is he going on a little journey to somebody! Yes, we can trust Karaguus, for he is one of us. Effendi, to-morrow at sunset, at your khan, for the bazaar will be closed, you shall hear from me.'