Tancred/Chapter XXIX

Tancred  (1847)  by Benjamin Disraeli
Chapter XXIX. Capture of the New Crusader


Capture of the New Crusader

THE dawn was about to break in a cloudless sky, when Tancred, accompanied by Baroni and two servants, all well armed and well mounted, and by Hassan, a sheikh of the Jellaheen Bedouins, tall and grave, with a long spear tufted with ostrich feathers in his hand, his musket slung at his back, and a scimitar at his side, quitted Jerusalem by the gate of Bethlehem.

If it were only to see the sun rise, or to become acquainted with nature at hours excluded from the experience of civilisation, it were worth while to be a traveller. There is something especially in the hour that precedes a Syrian dawn, which invigorates the frame and elevates the spirit. One cannot help fancying that angels may have been resting on the mountain tops during the night, the air is so sweet and the earth so still. Nor, when it wakes, does it wake to the maddening cares of Europe. The beauty of a patriarchal repose still lingers about its existence in spite of its degradation. Notwithstanding all they have suffered during the European development, the manners of the Asiatic races generally are more in harmony with nature than the complicated conventionalisms which harass their fatal rival, and which have increased in exact proportion as the Europeans have seceded from those Arabian and Syrian creeds that redeemed them from their primitive barbarism.

But the light breaks, the rising beam falls on the gazelles still bounding on the hills of Judah, and gladdens the partridge which still calls among the ravines, as it did in the days of the prophets. About half-way between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Tancred and his companions halted at the tomb of Rachel: here awaited them a chosen band of twenty stout Jellaheens, the subjects of Sheikh Hassan, their escort through the wildernesses of Arabia Petræa. The fringed and ribbed kerchief of the desert, which must be distinguished from the turban, and is woven by their own women from the hair of the camel, covered the heads of the Bedouins; a short white gown, also of home manufacture, and very rude, with a belt of cords, completed, with slippers, their costume.

Each man bore a musket and a dagger.

It was Baroni who had made the arrangement with Sheikh Hassan. Baroni had long known him as a brave and faithful Arab. In general, these contracts with the Bedouins for convoy through the desert are made by Franks through their respective consuls, but Tancred was not sorry to be saved from the necessity of such an application, as it would have excited the attention of Colonel Brace, who passed his life at the British Consulate, and who probably would have thought it necessary to put on the uniform of the Bellamont yeomanry cavalry, and have attended the heir of Montacute to Mount Sinai. Tancred shuddered at the idea of the presence of such a being at such a place, with his large ruddy face, his swaggering, sweltering figure, his flourishing whiskers, and his fat hands.

It was the fifth morn after the visit of Tancred to Bethany, of which he had said nothing to Baroni, the only person at his command who could afford or obtain any information as to the name and quality of her with whom he had there so singularly become acquainted. He was far from incurious on the subject; all that he had seen and all that he had heard at Bethany greatly interested him. But the reserve which ever controlled him, unless under the influence of great excitement, a reserve which was the result of pride and not of caution, would probably have checked any expression of his wishes on this head, even had he not been under the influence of those feelings which now absorbed him. A human being, animated by the hope, almost by the conviction, that a celestial communication is impending over his destiny, moves in a supernal sphere, which no earthly consideration can enter. The long musings of his voyage had been succeeded on the part of Tancred, since his arrival in the Holy Land, by one unbroken and impassioned reverie, heightened, not disturbed, by frequent and solitary prayer, by habitual fasts, and by those exciting conferences with Alonza Lara, in which he had struggled to penetrate the great Asian mystery, reserved however, if indeed ever expounded, for a longer initiation than had yet been proved by the son of the English noble.

After a week of solitary preparation, during which he had interchanged no word, and maintained an abstinence which might have rivalled an old eremite of Engedi, Tancred had kneeled before that empty sepulchre of the divine Prince of the house of David, for which his ancestor, Tancred de Montacute, six hundred years before, had struggled with those followers of Mahound, who, to the consternation and perplexity of Christendom, continued to retain it. Christendom cares nothing for that tomb now, has indeed forgotten its own name, and calls itself enlightened Europe. But enlightened Europe is not happy. Its existence is a fever, which it calls progress. Progress to what?

The youthful votary, during his vigils at the sacred tomb, had received solace but not inspiration. No voice from heaven had yet sounded, but his spirit was filled with the sanctity of the place, and he returned to his cell to prepare for fresh pilgrimages.

One day, in conference with Lara, the Spanish Prior had let drop these words: 'Sinai led to Calvary; it may be wise to trace your steps from Calvary to Sinai.'

At this moment, Tancred and his escort are in sight of Bethlehem, with the population of a village but the walls of a town, situate on an eminence overlooking a valley, which seems fertile after passing the stony plain of Rephaim. The first beams of the sun, too, were rising from the mountains of Arabia and resting on the noble convent of the Nativity.

From Bethlehem to Hebron, Canaan is still a land of milk and honey, though not so rich and picturesque as in the great expanse of Palestine to the north of the Holy City. The beauty and the abundance of the promised land may still be found in Samaria and Galilee; in the magnificent plains of Esdraelon, Zabulon, and Gennesareth; and ever by the gushing waters of the bowery Jordan.

About an hour after leaving Bethlehem, in a secluded valley, is one of the few remaining public works of the great Hebrew Kings, It is in every respect worthy of them. I speak of those colossal reservoirs cut out of the native rock and fed by a single spring, discharging their waters into an aqueduct of perforated stone, which, until a comparatively recent period, still conveyed them to Jerusalem. They are three in number, of varying lengths from five to six hundred feet, and almost as broad; their depth, still undiscovered. They communicate with each other, so that the water of the uppermost reservoir, flowing through the intermediate one, reached the third, which fed the aqueduct. They are lined with a hard cement like that which coats the pyramids, and which remains uninjured; and it appears that hanging gardens once surrounded them. The Arabs still call these reservoirs the pools of Solomon, nor is there any reason to doubt the tradition. Tradition, perhaps often more faithful than written documents, is a sure and almost infallible guide in the minds of the people where there has been no complicated variety of historic incidents to confuse and break the chain of memory; where their rare revolutions have consisted of an eruption once in a thousand years into the cultivated world; where society has never been broken up, but their domestic manners have remained the same; where, too, they revere truth, and are rigid in its oral delivery, since that is their only means of disseminating knowledge.

There is no reason to doubt that these reservoirs were the works of Solomon. This secluded valley, then, was once the scene of his imaginative and delicious life. Here were his pleasure gardens; these slopes were covered with his fantastic terraces, and the high places glittered with his pavilions. The fountain that supplied these treasured waters was perhaps the 'sealed fountain,' to which he compared his bride; and here was the garden palace where the charming Queen of Sheba vainly expected to pose the wisdom of Israel, as she held at a distance before the most dexterous of men the two garlands of flowers, alike in form and colour, and asked the great king, before his trembling court, to decide which of the wreaths was the real one.

They are gone, they are vanished, these deeds of beauty and these words of wit! The bright and glorious gardens of the tiaraed poet and the royal sage, that once echoed with his lyric voice, or with the startling truths of his pregnant aphorisms, end in this wild and solitary valley, in which with folded arms and musing eye of long abstraction, Tancred halts in his ardent pilgrimage, nor can refrain from asking himself, 'Can it, then, be true that all is vanity?'

Why, what, is this desolation? Why are there no more kings whose words are the treasured wisdom of countless ages, and the mention of whose name to this moment thrills the heart of the Oriental, from the waves of the midland ocean to the broad rivers of the farthest Ind? Why are there no longer bright-witted queens to step out of their Arabian palaces and pay visits to the gorgeous 'house of the forest of Lebanon,' or to where Baalbec, or Tadmor in the wilderness, rose on those plains now strewn with the superb relics of their inimitable magnificence?

And yet some flat-nosed Frank, full of bustle and puffed up with self-conceit (a race spawned perhaps in the morasses of some Northern forest hardly yet cleared), talks of Progress! Progress to what, and from whence? Amid empires shrivelled into deserts, amid the wrecks of great cities, a single column or obelisk of which nations import for the prime ornament of their mud-built capitals, amid arts forgotten, commerce annihilated, fragmentary literatures and populations destroyed, the European talks of progress, because, by an ingenious application of some scientific acquirements, he has established a society which has mistaken comfort for civilisation.

The soft beam of the declining sun fell upon a serene landscape; gentle undulations covered with rich shrubs or highly cultivated corn-fields and olive groves; sometimes numerous flocks; and then vineyards fortified with walls and with watch-towers, as in the time of David, whose city Tancred was approaching. Hebron, too, was the home of the great Sheikh Abraham; and the Arabs here possess his tomb, which no Christian is permitted to visit. It is strange and touching, that the children of Ishmael should have treated the name and memory of the Sheikh Abraham with so much reverence and affection. But the circumstance that he was the friend of Allah appears with them entirely to have outweighed the recollection of his harsh treatment of their great progenitor. Hebron has even lost with them its ancient Judæan name, and they always call it, in honour of the tomb of the Sheikh, the 'City of a Friend.'

About an hour after Hebron, in a fair pasture, and near an olive grove, Tancred pitched his tent, prepared on the morrow to quit the land of promise, and approach that 'great and terrible wilderness where there was no water.'

'The children of Israel,' as they were called according to the custom then and now universally prevalent among the Arabian tribes (as, for example, the Beni Kahtan, Beni Kelb, Beni Salem, Beni Sobh, Beni Ghamed, Beni Seydan, Beni Ali, Beni Hateym, all adopting for their description the name of their founder), the 'children of Israel' were originally a tribe of Arabia Petrasa. Under the guidance of sheikhs of great ability, they emerged from their stony wilderness and settled on the Syrian border.

But they could not maintain themselves against the disciplined nations of Palestine, and they fell back to their desert, which they found intolerable. Like some of the Bedouin tribes of modern times in the rocky wastes contiguous to the Red Sea, they were unable to resist the temptations of the Egyptian cities; they left their free but distressful wilderness, and became Fellaheen. The Pharaohs, however, made them pay for their ready means of sustenance, as Mehemet Ali has made the Arabs of our days who have quitted the desert to eat the harvests of the Nile. They enslaved them, and worked them as beasts of burden. But this was not to be long borne by a race whose chiefs in the early ages had been favoured by Jehovah; the patriarch Emirs, who, issuing from the Caucasian cradle of the great races, spread over the plains of Mesopotamia, and disseminated their illustrious seed throughout the Arabian wilderness. Their fiery imaginations brooded over the great traditions of their tribe, and at length there arose among them one of those men whose existence is an epoch in the history of human nature: a great creative spirit and organising mind, in whom the faculties of conception and of action are equally balanced and possessed in the highest degree; in every respect a man of the complete Caucasian model, and almost as perfect as Adam when he was just finished and placed in Eden.

But Jehovah recognised in Moses a human instrument too rare merely to be entrusted with the redemption of an Arabian tribe from a state of Fellaheen to Bedouin existence. And, therefore, he was summoned to be the organ of an eternal revelation of the Divine will, and his tribe were appointed to be the hereditary ministers of that mighty and mysterious dispensation.

It is to be noted, although the Omnipotent Creator might have found, had it pleased him, in the humblest of his creations, an efficient agent for his purpose, however difficult and sublime, that Divine Majesty has never thought fit to communicate except with human beings of the very highest powers. They are always men who have manifested an extraordinary aptitude for great affairs, and the possession of a fervent and commanding genius. They are great legislators, or great warriors, or great poets, or orators of the most vehement and impassioned spirit. Such were Moses, Joshua, the heroic youth of Hebron, and his magnificent son; such, too, was Isaiah, a man, humanly speaking, not inferior to Demosthenes, and struggling for a similar and as beautiful a cause, the independence of a small state, eminent for its intellectual power, against the barbarian grandeur of a military empire. All the great things have been done by the little nations. It is the Jordan and the Ilyssus that have civilised the modern races. An Arabian tribe, a clan of the Ægean, have been the promulgators of all our knowledge; and we should never have heard of the Pharaohs, of Babylon the great and Nineveh the superb, of Cyrus and of Xerxes, had not it been for Athens and Jerusalem.

Tancred rose with the sun from his encampment at Hebron, to traverse, probably, the same route pursued by the spies when they entered the Land of Promise. The transition from Canaan to the stony Arabia is not abrupt. A range of hills separates Palestine from a high but level country similar to the Syrian desert, sandy in some places, but covered in all with grass and shrubs; a vast expanse of downs. Gradually the herbage disappears, and the shrubs are only found tufting the ridgy tops of low undulating sandhills. Soon the sand becomes stony, and no trace of vegetation is ever visible excepting occasionally some thorny plant. Then comes a land which alternates between plains of sand and dull ranges of monotonous hills covered with loose flints; sometimes the pilgrim winds his way through their dull ravines, sometimes he mounts the heights and beholds a prospect of interminable desolation.

For three nights had Tancred encamped in this wilderness, halting at some spot where they could find some desert shrubs that might serve as food for the camels and fuel for themselves. His tent was soon pitched, the night fires soon crackling, and himself seated at one with the Sheikh and Baroni, he beheld with interest and amusement the picturesque and flashing groups around him. Their fare was scant and simple: bread baked upon the spot, the dried tongue of a gazelle, the coffee of the neighbouring Mocha, and the pipe that ever consoles, if indeed the traveller, whatever his hardships, could need any sustenance but his own high thoughts in such a scene, canopied, too, by the most beautiful sky and the most delicious climate in the world.

They were in the vicinity of Mount Seir; on the morrow they were to commence the passage of the lofty range which stretches on to Sinai. The Sheikh, who had a feud with a neighbouring tribe, and had been anxious and vigilant while they crossed the open country, riding on with an advanced guard before his charge, reconnoitring from sandhill to sandhill, often creeping up and lying on his breast, so as not to be visible to the enemy, congratulated Tancred that all imminent danger was past.

'Not that I am afraid of them,' said Hassan, proudly; 'but we must kill them or they will kill us.' Hassan, though Sheikh of his own immediate family and followers, was dependent on the great Sheikh of the Jellaheen tribe, and was bound to obey his commands in case the complete clan were summoned to congregate in any particular part of the desert.

On the morrow they commenced their passage of the mountains, and, after clearing several ranges found themselves two hours after noon in a defile so strangely beautiful that to behold it would alone have repaid all the exertions and perils of the expedition. It was formed by precipitous rocks of a picturesque shape and of great height, and of colours so brilliant and so blended that to imagine them you must fancy the richest sunset you have ever witnessed, and that would be inferior, from the inevitable defect of its fleeting character. Here the tints, sometimes vivid, sometimes shadowed down, were always equally fair: light blue heights, streaked, perhaps, with scarlet and shaded off to lilac or purple; a cleft of bright orange; a broad peach-coloured expanse, veined in delicate circles and wavy lines of exquisite grace; sometimes yellow and purple stripes; sometimes an isolated steep of every hue flaming in the sun, and then, like a young queen on a gorgeous throne, from a vast rock of crimson, and gold rose a milk-white summit. The frequent fissures of this defile were filled with rich woods of oleander and shrubs of every shade of green, from which rose acacia, and other trees unknown to Tancred. Over all this was a deep and cloudless sky, and through it a path winding amid a natural shrubbery, which princes would have built colossal conservatories to preserve.

' 'Tis a scene of enchantment that has risen to mock us in the middle of the desert,' exclaimed the enraptured pilgrim; 'surely it must vanish even as we gaze!'

Sheikh Hassan suddenly hurled his spear

About half-way up the defile, when they had traversed it for about a quarter of an hour, Sheikh Hassan suddenly galloped forward and hurled his spear with great force at an isolated crag, the base of which was covered with oleanders, and then looking back he shouted to his companions. Tancred and the foremost hurried up to him.

'Here are tracks of horses and camels that have entered the valley thus far and not passed through it. They are fresh; let all be prepared.'

'We are twenty-five men well armed,' said Baroni. 'It is not the Tyahas that will attack such a band.'

'Nor are they the Gherashi or the Mezeines,' said the Sheikh, 'for we know what they are after, and we are brothers.'

'They must be Alouins,' said an Arab.

At this moment the little caravan was apparently land-locked, the defile again winding; but presently it became quite straight, and its termination was visible, though at a considerable distance.

'I see horsemen,' said the Sheikh; 'several of them advance; they are not Alouins.'

He rode forward to meet them, accompanied by Tancred and Baroni.

'Salaam,' said the Sheikh, 'how is it?' and then he added, aside to Baroni, 'They are strangers; why are they here?'

'Aleikoum! We know where you come from,' was the reply of one of the horsemen. 'Is that the brother of the Queen of the English? Let him ride with us, and you may go on in peace.'

'He is my brother,' said Sheikh Hassan, 'and the brother of all here. There is no feud between us. Who are you?'

'We are children of Jethro, and the great Sheikh has sent us a long way to give you salaam. Your desert here is not fit for the camel that your Prophet cursed. Come, let us finish our business, for we wish to see a place where there are palm trees.'

'Are these children of Eblis?' said Sheikh Hassan to Baroni.

'It is the day of judgment,' said Baroni, looking pale; 'such a thing has not happened in my time. I am lost.'

'What do these people say?' inquired Tancred.

'There is but one God,' said Sheikh Hassan, whose men had now reached him, 'and Mahomet is his Prophet. Stand aside, sons of Eblis, or you shall bite the earth which curses you!'

A wild shout from every height of the defile was the answer. They looked up, they looked round; the crest of every steep was covered with armed Arabs, each man with his musket levelled.

'My lord,' said Baroni, 'there is something hidden in all this. This is not an ordinary desert foray. You are known, and this tribe comes from a distance to plunder you;' and then he rapidly detailed what had already passed.

'What is your force, sons of Eblis?' said the Sheikh to the horsemen.

'Count your men, and your muskets, and your swords, and your horses, and your camels; and if they were all double, they would not be our force. Our great Sheikh would have come in person with ten thousand men, were not your wilderness here fit only for Giaours.'

'Tell the young chief,' said the Sheikh to Baroni, 'that I am his brother, and will shed the last drop of my blood in his service, as I am bound to do, as much as he is bound to give me ten thousand piastres for the journey, and ask him what he wishes.'

'Demand to know distinctly what these men want,' said Tancred to Baroni, who then conferred with them.

'They want your lordship,' said Baroni, 'whom they call the brother of the Queen of the English; their business is clearly to carry you to their great Sheikh, who will release you for a large ransom.'

'And they have no feud with the Jellaheens?'

'None; they are strangers; they come from a distance for this purpose; nor can it be doubted that this plan has been concocted at Jerusalem.'

'Our position, I fear, is fatal in this defile,' said Tancred; 'it is bitter to be the cause of exposing so many brave men to almost inevitable slaughter. Tell them, Baroni, that I am not the brother of the Queen of the English; that they are ridiculously misled, and that their aim is hopeless, for all that will be ransomed will be my corpse.'

Sheikh Hassan sat on his horse like a statue, with his spear in his hand and his eye on his enemy; Baroni, advancing to the strange horsemen, who were in position about ten yards from Tancred and his guardian, was soon engaged in animated conversation. He did all that an able diplomatist could effect; told lies with admirable grace, and made a hundred propositions that did not commit his principal. He assured them very heartily that Tancred was not the brother of the Queen of the English; that he was only a young Sheikh, whose father was alive, and in possession of all the flocks and herds, camels and horses; that he had quarrelled with his father; that his father, perhaps, would not be sorry if he were got rid of, and would not give a hundred piastres to save his life. Then he offered, if he would let Tancred pass, himself to go with them as prisoner to their great Sheikh, and even proposed Hassan and half his men for additional hostages, whilst some just and equitable arrangement could be effected. All, however, was in vain. The enemy had no discretion; dead or alive, the young Englishman must be carried to their chief.

'I can do nothing,' said Baroni, returning; 'there is something in all this which I do not understand. It has never happened in my time.'

'There is, then, but one course to be taken,' said Tancred; 'we must charge through the defile. At any rate we shall have the satisfaction of dying like men. Let us each fix on our opponent. That audacious-looking Arab in a red kefia shall be my victim, or my destroyer. Speak to the Sheikh, and tell him to prepare his men. Freeman and Trueman,' said Tancred, looking round to his English servants, 'we are in extreme peril; I took you from your homes; if we outlive this day, and return to Montacute, you shall live on your own land.'

'Never mind us, my lord: if it wern't for those rocks we would beat these niggers.'

'Are you all ready?' said Tancred to Baroni.

'We are all ready.'

'Then I commend my soul to Jesus Christ, and to the God of Sinai, in whose cause I perish.' So saying, Tancred shot the Arab in the red kefia through the head, and with his remaining pistol disabled another of the enemy. This he did, while he and his band were charging, so suddenly and so boldly, that those immediately opposed to them were scattered. There was a continuous volley, however, from every part of the defile, and the scene was so involved in smoke that it was impossible for Tancred to see a yard around him; still he galloped on and felt conscious that he had companions, though the shouting was so great that it was impossible to communicate. The smoke suddenly drifting, Tancred caught a glimpse of his position; he was at the mouth of the defile, followed by several of his men, whom he had not time to distinguish, and awaited by innumerable foes.

'Let us sell our lives dearly!' was all that he could exclaim. His sword fell from his wounded arm; his horse, stabbed underneath, sank with him to the ground. He was overpowered and bound. 'Every drop of his blood,' exclaimed the leader of the strange Arabs, 'is worth ten thousand piastres.'