Tancred/Chapter XXIV

Tancred  (1847)  by Benjamin Disraeli
Chapter XXIV. A Gathering of Sages


A Gathering of Sages

NEAR the gate of Sion there is a small, still, hilly street, the houses of which, as is general in the East, present to the passenger, with the exception of an occasional portal, only blank walls, built, as they are at Jerusalem, of stone, and very lofty. These walls commonly enclose a court, and, though their exterior offers always a sombre and often squalid appearance, it by no means follows that within you may not be welcomed with cheerfulness and even luxury.

At this moment a man in the Syrian dress, turban and flowing robe, is passing through one of the gateways of this street, and entering the large quadrangle to which it leads. It is surrounded by arcades; on one side indications of commerce, piles of chests, cases, and barrels; the other serving for such simple stables as are sufficient in the East. Crossing this quadrangle, the stranger passed by a corridor into a square garden of orange and lemon trees and fountains. This garden court was surrounded by inhabited chambers, and, at the end of it, passing through a low arch at the side, and then mounting a few steps, he was at once admitted into a spacious and stately chamber. Its lofty ceiling was vaulted and lightly painted in arabesque; its floor was of white marble, varied with mosaics of fruit and flowers; it was panelled with cedar, and in six of the principal panels were Arabic inscriptions emblazoned in blue and gold. At the top of this hall, and ranging down its two sides, was a divan or seat, raised about one foot from the ground, and covered with silken cushions; and the marble floor before this divan was spread at intervals with small bright Persian carpets.

In this chamber some half dozen persons were seated in the Eastern fashion, and smoking either the choice tobaccoes of Syria through the cherry-wood or jasmine tube of a Turkish or Egyptian chibouque, or inhaling through rose-water the more artificial flavour of the nargileh, which is the hookah of the Levant. If a guest found his pipe exhausted, he clapped his hands, and immediately a negro page appeared, dressed in scarlet or in white, and, learning his pleasure, returned in a few moments, and bowing presented him with a fresh and illumined chibouque. At intervals, these attendants appeared without a summons, and offered cups of Mocha coffee or vases of sherbet.

The lord of this divan, who was seated at the upper end of the room, reclining on embroidered cushions of various colours, and using a nargileh of fine workmanship, was a man much above the common height, being at least six feet two without his red cap of Fez, though so well proportioned, that you would not at the first glance give him credit for such a stature. He was extremely handsome, retaining ample remains of one of those countenances of blended regularity and lustre which are found only in the cradle of the human race. Though he was fifty years of age, time had scarcely brought a wrinkle to his still brilliant complexion, while his large, soft, dark eyes, his arched brow, his well-proportioned nose, his small mouth and oval cheek presented altogether one of those faces which, in spite of long centuries of physical suffering and moral degradation, still haunt the cities of Asia Minor, the isles of Greece, and the Syrian coasts. It is the archetype of manly beauty, the tradition of those races who have wandered the least from Paradise; and who, notwithstanding many vicissitudes and much misery, are still acted upon by the same elemental agencies as influenced the Patriarchs; are warmed by the same sun, freshened by the same air, and nourished by the same earth as cheered and invigorated and sustained the earlier generations. The costume of the East certainly does not exaggerate the fatal progress of time; if a figure becomes too portly, the flowing robe conceals the incumbrance which is aggravated by a western dress; he, too, who wears a turban has little dread of grey hairs; a grizzly beard indeed has few charms, but whether it were the lenity of time or the skill of his barber in those arts in which Asia is as experienced as Europe, the beard of the master of the divan became the rest of his appearance, and flowed to his waist in rich dark curls, lending additional dignity to a countenance of which the expression was at the same time grand and benignant.

Upon the right of the master of the divan was, smoking a jasmine pipe, Scheriff Effendi, an Egyptian merchant, of Arab race, a dark face in a white turban, mild and imperturbable, and seated as erect on his crossed legs as if he were administering justice; a remarkable contrast to the individual who was on the left of the host, who might have been mistaken for a mass of brilliant garments huddled together, had not the gurgling sound of the nargileh occasionally assured the spectator that it was animated by human breath. This person was apparently lying on his back, his face hid, his form not to be traced, a wild confusion of shawls and cushions, out of which, like some wily and dangerous reptile, glided the spiral involutions of his pipe. Next to the invisible sat a little wiry man with a red nose, sparkling eyes, and a white beard. His black turban intimated that he was a Hebrew, and indeed he was well known as Barizy of the Tower, a description which he had obtained from his residence near the Tower of David, and which distinguished him from his cousin, who was called Barizy of the Gate. Further on an Armenian from Stamboul, in his dark robes and black protuberant head-dress, resembling a colossal truffle, solaced himself with a cherry stick which reminded him of the Bosphorus, and he found a companion in this fashion in the young officer of a French brig-of-war anchored at Beiroot, and who had obtained leave to visit the Holy Land, as he was anxious to see the women of Bethlehem, of whose beauty he had heard much.

As the new comer entered the hall, he shuffled off his slippers at the threshold, and then advancing, and pressing a hand to his brow, his mouth and his heart, a salutation which signifies that in thought, speech, and feeling he was faithful to his host, and which salutation was immediately returned, he took his seat upon the divan, and the master of the house, letting the flexible tube of his nargileh fall on one of the cushions, and clapping his hands, a page immediately brought a pipe to the new guest. This was Signor Pasqualigo, one of those noble Venetian names that every now and then turn up in the Levant, and borne in the present case by a descendant of a family who for centuries had enjoyed a monopoly of some of the smaller consular offices of the Syrian coast. Signor Pasqualigo had installed his son as deputy in the ambiguous agency at Jaffa, which he described as a vice-consulate, and himself principally resided at Jerusalem, of which he was the prime gossip, or second only to his rival, Barizy of the Tower. He had only taken a preliminary puff of his chibouque, to be convinced that there was no fear of its being extinguished, before he said,

'So there was a fine pilgrimage last night; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lighted up from sunset to sunrise, an extra guard in the court, and only the Spanish prior and two brethren permitted to enter. It must be 10,000 piastres at least in the coffers of the Terra Santa. Well, they want something! It is a long time since we have had a Latin pilgrim in El Khuds.'

'And they say, after all, that this was not a Latin pilgrim,' said Barizy of the Tower.

'He could not have been one of my people,' said the Armenian, 'or he never would have gone to the Holy Sepulchre with the Spanish prior.'

'Had he been one of your people,' said Pasqualigo, 'he could not have paid 10,000 piastres for a pilgrimage.'

'I am sure a Greek never would,' said Barizy, 'unless he were a Russian prince.'

'And a Russian does not care much for rosaries unless they are made of diamonds,' said Pasqualigo.

'As far as I can make out this morning,' said Barizy of the Tower, 'it is a brother of the Queen of England.'

'I was thinking it might be that,' said Pasqualigo, nettled at his rival's early information, 'the moment I heard he was an Englishman.'

'The English do not believe in the Holy Sepulchre,' said the Armenian, calmly.

'They do not believe in our blessed Saviour,' said Pasqualigo, 'but they do believe in the Holy Sepulchre.'

Pasqualigo's strong point was theology, and there were few persons in Jerusalem who on this head ventured to maintain an argument with him.

'How do you know that the pilgrim is an Englishman?' asked their host.

'Because his servants told me so,' said Pasqualigo.

'He has got an English general for the principal officer of his household,' said Barizy, 'which looks like blood royal; a very fine man, who passes the whole day at the English consulate.'

'They have taken a house in the Via Dolorosa,' said Pasqualigo.

'Of Hassan Nejed?' continued Barizy of the Tower, clutching the words out of his rival's grasp; 'Hassan asked five thousand piastres per month, and they gave it. What think you of that?'

'He must indeed be an Englishman,' said Scheriff Effendi, taking his pipe slowly from his mouth. There was a dead silence when he spoke; he was much respected.

'He is very young,' said Barizy of the Tower; 'younger than the Queen, which is one reason why he is not on the throne, for in England the eldest always succeeds, except in moveables, and those always go to the youngest.'

Barizy of the Tower, though he gave up to Pasqualigo in theology, partly from delicacy, being a Jew, would yield to no man in Jerusalem in his knowledge of law.

'If he goes on at this rate,' said the Armenian, 'he will soon spend all his money; this place is dearer than Stamboul.'

'There is no fear of his spending all his money,' said their host, 'for the young man has brought me such a letter that if he were to tell me to rebuild the temple, I must do it.'

'And who is this young man, Besso?' exclaimed the Invisible, starting up, and himself exhibiting a youthful countenance; fair, almost effeminate, no beard, a slight moustache, his features too delicate, but his brow finely arched, and his blue eye glittering with fire.

'He is an English lord,' said Besso, 'and one of the greatest; that is all I know.'

'And why does he come here?' inquired the youth. 'The English do not make pilgrimages.' 'Yet you have heard what he has done.' 'And why is this silent Frenchman smoking your Latakia,' he continued in a low voice. 'He comes to Jerusalem at the same time as this Englishman. There is more in this than meets our eye. You do not know the northern nations. They exist only in political combinations. You are not a politician, my Besso. Depend upon it, we shall hear more of this Englishman, and of his doing something else than praying at the Holy Sepulchre.'

'It may be so, most noble Emir, but as you say, I am no politician.'

'Would that you were, my Besso! It would be well for you and for all of us. See now,' he added in a whisper, 'that apparently inanimate mass, Scheriff Effendi—that man has a political head, he understands a combination, he is going to smuggle me five thousand English muskets into the desert, he will deliver them to a Bedouin tribe, who have engaged to convey them safely to the Mountain. There, what do you think of that, my Besso? Do you know now what are politics? Tell the Rose of Sharon of it. She will say it is beautiful. Ask the Rose what she thinks of it, my Besso.'

'Well, I shall see her to-morrow.'

'I have done well; have I not?'

'You are satisfied; that is well.'

'Not quite, my Besso; but I can be satisfied if you please. You see that Scheriff Effendi there, sitting like an Afrite; he will not give me the muskets unless I pay him for them; and the Bedouin chief, he will not carry the arms unless I give him 10,000 piastres. Now, if you will pay these people for me, my Besso, and deduct the expenses from my Lebanon loan when it is negotiated, that would be a great service. Now, now, my Besso, shall it be done?' he continued with the coaxing voice and with the wheedling manner of a girl. 'You shall have any terms you like, and I will always love you so, my Besso. Let it be done, let it be done! I will go down on my knees and kiss your hand before the Frenchman, which will spread your fame throughout Europe, and make Louis Philippe take you for the first man in Syria, if you will do it for me. Dear, dear Besso, you will pay that old camel Scheriff Ef-fendi for me, will you not? and please the Rose of Sharon as much as me!'

'My prince,' said Besso, 'have a fresh pipe; I never can transact business after sunset.'

The reader will remember that Sidonia had given Tancred a letter of credit on Besso. He is the same Besso who was the friend at Jerusalem of Contarini Fleming, and this is the same chamber in which Contarini, his host, and others who were present, inscribed one night, before their final separation, certain sentences in the panels of the walls. The original writing remains, but Besso, as we have already seen, has had the sentences emblazoned in a manner more permanent and more striking to the eye. They may, however, be both seen by all those who visit Jerusalem, and who enjoy the flowing hospitality and experience the boundless benevolence of this prince of Hebrew merchants.