Tancred/Chapter XLVIII


Eva's Affianced Bridegroom

WE OUGHT to have met at Jerusalem,' said Tancred to Besso, on whose right hand he was seated, 'but I am happy to thank you for all your kindness, even at Damascus.' 'My daughter tells me you are not uninterested in our people, which is the reason I ventured to ask you here.'

'I cannot comprehend how a Christian can be uninterested in a people who have handed down to him immortal truths.'

'All the world is not as sensible of the obligation as yourself, noble traveller.'

'But who are the world? Do you mean the inhabitants of Europe, which is a forest not yet cleared; or the inhabitants of Asia, which is a ruin about to tumble?'

'The railroads will clear the forest,' said Besso. 'And what is to become of the ruin?' asked Tancred.

'God will not forget His land.' 'That is the truth; the government of this globe must be divine, and the impulse can only come from Asia.'

'If your government only understood the Eastern question!' said Mr. Consul-General Laurella, pricking up his ears at some half phrase that he had caught, and addressing Tancred across the table. 'It is more simple than you imagine, and before you return to England to take your seat in your Parliament, I should be very happy to have some conversation with you.

I think I could tell you some things——' and he gave a glance of diplomatic mystery. Tancred bowed.

'For my part,' said Hillel Besso, shrugging his shoulders, and speaking in an airy tone, 'it seems to me that your Eastern question is a great imbroglio that only exists in the cabinets of diplomatists. Why should there be any Eastern question? All is very well as it is. At least we might be worse: I think we might be worse.'

'I am so happy to find myself once more among you,' whispered Fakredeen to his neighbour, Madame Mourad Farhi. 'This is my real home.'

'All here must be happy and honoured to see you, too, noble Emir.'

'And the good Signor Mourad: I am afraid I am not a favourite of his?' pursued Fakredeen, meditating a loan.

'I never heard my husband speak of you, noble Emir, but with the greatest consideration.'

'There is no man I respect so much,' said Fakredeen; 'no one in whom I have such a thorough confidence. Excepting our dear host, who is really my father, there is no one on whose judgment I would so implicitly rely. Tell him all that, my dear Madame Mourad, for I wish him to respect me.'

'I admire his hair so much,' whispered Thérèse Laurella, in an audible voice to her sister, across the broad form of the ever-smiling Madame Picholoroni. 'Tis such a relief after our dreadful turbans.'

'And his costume, so becoming! I wonder how any civilised being can wear the sort of things we see about us. 'Tis really altogether like a wardrobe of the Comédie.'

'Well, Sophonisbe,' said the sensible Moses Laurella, 'I admire the Franks very much; they have many qualities which I could wish our Levantines shared; but I confess that I do not think that their strong point is their costume.'

'Oh, my dear uncle!' said Thérèse; 'look at that beautiful white cravat. What have we like it? So simple, so distinguished! Such good taste! And then the boots. Think of our dreadful slippers! powdered with pearls and all sorts of trash of that kind, by the side of that lovely French polish.'

'He must be terribly ennuyé here,' said Thérèse to Sophonisbe, with a look of the initiated.

'Indeed, I should think so: no balls, not an opera; I quite pity him. What could have induced him to come here?'

'I should think he must be attached to some one,' said Thérèse: 'he looks unhappy.'

'There is not a person near him with whom he can have an idea in common.'

'Except Mr. Hillel Besso,' said Thérèse. 'He appears to be quite enlightened. I spoke to him a little before dinner. He has been a winter at Pera, and went to all the balls.'

'Lord Palmerston understood the Eastern question to a certain degree,' said Mr. Consul-General Laurella; 'but, had I been in the service of the Queen of England, I could have told him some things;' and he mysteriously paused.

'I cannot endure this eternal chatter about Palmerston,' said the Emir, rather pettishly. 'Are there no other statesmen in the world besides Palmerston? And what should he know about the Eastern question, who never was in the East?'

'Ah, noble Emir, these are questions of the high diplomacy. They cannot be treated unless by the cabinets which have traditions.'

'I could settle the Eastern question in a month, if I were disposed,' said Fakredeen.

Mr. Consul-General Laurella smiled superciliously, and then said, 'But the question is, what is the Eastern question?'

'For my part,' said Hillel Besso, in a most epigrammatic manner, 'I do not see the use of settling anything.'

'The Eastern question is, who shall govern the Mediterranean?' said the Emir. 'There are only two powers who can do it: Egypt and Syria. As for the English, the Russians, the Franks, your friends the Austrians, they are strangers. They come, and they will go; but Syria and Egypt will always remain.'

'Egypt has tried, and failed.'

'Then let Syria try, and succeed.'

'Do you visit Egypt before you return from the East, noble sir?' asked Besso, of Tancred.

'I have not thought of my return; but I should not be sorry to visit Egypt. It is a country that rather perplexes us in Europe. It has undergone great changes.'

Besso shook his head, and slightly smiled.

'Egypt,' said he, 'never changes. 'Tis the same land as in the days of the Pharaohs: governed on their principles of political economy, with a Hebrew for prime minister.'

'A Hebrew for prime minister!'

'Even so: Artim Bey, the present prime minister of Egypt, formerly the Pasha's envoy at Paris, and by far the best political head in the Levant, is not only the successor but the descendant of Joseph.'

'He must be added then to your friend M. de Sidonia's list of living Hebrew statesmen,' said Tancred.

'We have our share of the government of the world,' said Besso.

'It seems to me that you govern every land except your own.'

'That might have been done in '39,' said Besso musingly; 'but why speak of a subject which can little interest you?'

'Can little interest me!' exclaimed Tancred. 'What other subject should interest me? More than six centuries ago, the government of that land interested my ancestor, and he came here to achieve it.'

The stars were shining before they quitted the Arabian tabernacle of Besso. The air was just as soft as a sweet summer English noon, and quite as still. The pavilions of the terrace and the surrounding bowers were illuminated by the varying tints of a thousand lamps. Bright carpets and rich cushions were thrown about for those who cared to recline; the brothers Farhi, for example, and indeed most of the men, smoking inestimable nargilehs. The Consul-General Laurella begged permission to present Lord Montacute to his daughters Thérèse and Sophonisbe, who, resolved to show to him that Damascus was not altogether so barbarous as he deemed it, began talking of new dances and the last opera. Tancred would have found great difficulty in sustaining his part in the conversation, had not the young ladies fortunately been requested to favour those present with a specimen of the art in which they excelled, which they did after much solicitation, vowing that they had no voice to-night, and that it was impossible at all times to sing except in a chamber.

'For my part,' said Hillel Besso, with an extremely piquant air, 'music in a chamber is very charming, but I think also in the open air it is not so bad.'

Tancred took advantage of this movement to approach Eva, who was conversing, as they took their evening walk, with the soft-eyed sister of Hillel and Madame Nassim Farhi; a group of women that the drawing-rooms of Europe and the harems of Asia could perhaps not have rivalled.

'The Mesdemoiselles Laurella are very accomplished,' said Tancred, 'but at Damascus I am not content to hear anything but sackbuts and psalteries.'

'But in Europe your finest music is on the subjects of our history,' said Eva.

'Naturally,' said Tancred, 'music alone can do justice to such themes. They baffle the uninspired pen.'

'There is a prayer which the Mesdemoiselles Laurella once sang, a prayer of Moses in Egypt,' said Madame Nassim, somewhat timidly. 'It is very fine.'

'I wish they would favour us with it,' said Eva; 'I will ask Hillel to request that kindness;' and she beckoned to Hillel, who sauntered toward her, and listened to her whispered wish with a smile of supercilious complacency.

'At present they are going to favour us with Don Pasquale,' he said, shrugging his shoulders. 'A prayer is a very fine thing, but for my part, at this hour, I think a serenade is not so bad.'

'And how do you like my father?' said Eva to Tancred in a hesitating tone, and yet with a glance of blended curiosity and pride.

'He is exactly what Sidonia prepared me for; worthy not only of being your father, but the father of mankind.'

'The Moslemin say that we are near paradise at Damascus,' said Madame Nassim, 'and that Adam was fashioned out of our red earth.'

'He much wished to see you,' said Eva, 'and your meeting is as unexpected as to him it is agreeable.'

'We ought to have met long before,' said Tancred. 'When I first arrived at Jerusalem, I ought to have hastened to his threshold. The fault and the misfortune were mine. I scarcely deserved the happiness of knowing you.'

'I am happy we have all met, and that you now understand us a little. When you go back to England, you will defend us when we are defamed? You will not let them persecute us, as they did a few years back, because they said we crucified their children at the feast of our passover?'

'I shall not go back to England,' said Tancred, colouring; 'and if you are persecuted, I hope I shall be able to defend you here.'

The glowing sky, the soft mellow atmosphere, the brilliant surroundings, and the flowers and flashing gems, rich dresses and ravishing music, and every form of splendour and luxury, combined to create a scene that to Tancred was startling, as well from its beauty as its novel character. A rich note of Thérèse Laurella for an instant arrested their conversation. They were silent while it lingered on their ear. Then Tancred said to the soft-eyed sister of Hillel, 'All that we require here to complete the spell are your beautiful children.'

'They sleep,' said the lady, 'and lose little by not being present, for, like the Queen of Sheba, I doubt not they are dreaming of music and flowers.'

'They say that the children of our race are the most beautiful in the world,' said Eva, 'but that when they grow up, they do not fulfil the promise of their infancy.'

'That were scarcely possible,' said the soft-eyed mother.

'It is the sense of shame that comes on them and dims their lustre,' said Eva. 'Instead of joyous-ness and frank hilarity, anxiety and a shrinking reserve are soon impressed upon the youthful Hebrew visage. It is the seal of ignominy. The dreadful secret that they are an expatriated and persecuted race is soon revealed to them, at least among the humbler classes. The children of our house are bred in noble thoughts, and taught self-respect. Their countenances will not change.'

And the countenance from whose beautiful mouth issued those gallant words, what of that? It was one that might wilder the wisest. Tancred gazed upon it with serious yet fond abstraction. All heavenly and heroic thoughts gathered around the image of this woman. From the first moment of their meeting at Bethany to this hour of sacred festival, all the passages of his life in which she had been present flashed through his mind. For a moment he was in the ruins of the Arabian desert, and recalled her glance of sweet solicitude, when, recovered by her skill and her devotion, he recognised the fair stranger whose words had, ere that, touched the recesses of his spirit, and attuned his mind to high and holiest mysteries. Now again their eyes met; an ineffable expression suffused the countenance of Lord Monta-cute. He sighed.

At this moment Hillel and Fakredeen advanced with a hurried air of gaiety. Hillel offered his hand to Eva with jaunty grace, exclaiming at the same time, 'Ladies, if you like to follow us, you shall see a casket just arrived from Marseilles, and which Eva will favour me by carrying to Aleppo. It was chosen for me by the Lady of the Austrian Internuncio, who is now at Paris. For my part, I do not see much advantage in the diplomatic corps, if occasionally they do not execute a commission for one.'

Hillel hurried Eva away, accompanied by his sister and Madame Nassim. Tancred and Fakredeen remained behind.

'Who is this man?' said Tancred.

' 'Tis her affianced,' said the Emir; 'the man who has robbed me of my natural bride. It is to be hoped, however, that, when she is married, Besso will adopt me as his son, which in a certain sense I am, having been fostered by his wife. If he do not leave me his fortune, he ought at least to take up all my bills in Syria. Don't you think so, my Tancred?'

'What?' said Tancred, with a dreamy look.

There was a burst of laughter in the distance.

'Come, come,' said Fakredeen, 'see how they are all gathering round the marriage casket. Even Nassim Farhi has risen. I must go and talk to him: he has impulses, that man, at least compared with his brother; Mourad is a stone, a precious stone though, and you cannot magnetise him through his wife, for she has not an idea; but Madame Nassim is immensely mesmeric. Come, come, Tancred.'

'I follow.'

But instead of following his friend, Tancred entered one of the marble pavilions that jutted out from each corner of the terraced roof, and commanded splendid views of the glittering and gardened city. The moon had risen over that unrivalled landscape; the white minarets sparkled in its beam, and the vast hoods of the cupolaed mosques were suffused with its radiancy or reposed in dark shadow, almost as black as the cypress groves out of which they rose. In the extreme distance, beyond the fertile plain, was the desert, bright as the line of the sea, while otherwise around him extended the chains of Lebanon and of the North.

The countenance of Tancred was more than serious, it was sad, as, leaning against one of the wreathed marble pillars, he sighed and murmured: 'If I were thou, most beautiful Damascus, Aleppo should not rob me of such a gem! But I must tear up these thoughts from my heart by their roots, and remember that I am ordained for other deeds.'